The NBA All-Star starters were announced on Thursday night … and really there isn’t much to quarrel about.
I’m a member of the media voting panel, and many of these picks lined up with my own. The Western Conference lineup was pretty straightforward. James Harden and Luka Doncic have been by far the best guards. LeBron James is LeBron James. Anthony Davis has regained his MVP-level form. Kawhi Leonard is having another terrific season. If you want to quibble, you could say Nikola Jokic or Rudy Gobert was more deserving than Leonard, given that each has played at least eight more games, but no one should be outraged that Leonard got the nod.
The Eastern Conference offered a few more arguments. Giannis Antetokounmpo was a no-brainer. Kemba Walker was an easy call. You can make a games-played argument about Joel Embiid (31), but Embiid is the best two-way center in the NBA putting up another monster statistical season. He’s in.
Pascal Siakam snagged the third frontcourt slot, and this was where it got dicey for me. No one has been a bigger supporter than Siakam than me; I started the MVP drumbeat after the second game of the season. But he leveled off a little after an absurdly hot start, and a mid-December groin injury kept him out of the Raptors lineup for nearly a month. Contrast that with Jimmy Butler—who I voted for—who has been a perfect fit in Miami, scoring nearly 20 points per game while emerging as the Heat’s best playmaker (6.5 assists). He’s also attempting nine free throws a game, knocking them down at an 83% clip.
The Heat, meanwhile, are the No. 2 team in the conference, largely because of Butler. That deserves recognition.
Trae Young in the second guard spot is bewildering. Young is putting up some big numbers (29 points per game), but his team stinks and he doesn’t defend anyone. He’s an All-Star, for sure. But a starter? Come on.
My choice came down to Kyle Lowry and Ben Simmons. Simmons is a defensive wrecking ball. He plays the passing lanes perfectly and can capably guard four positions. There are few more dangerous players in the open floor. But he remains exploitable in the half court—Google “Why won’t Ben Simmons shoot threes” and wait for your laptop to explode—and Andre Drummond has a higher free throw percentage.
I voted for Lowry. There’s another games-played argument to be made—Lowry is at 33, 11 fewer than Simmons—but he’s averaging 20 points per game in a post-Kawhi world, playing a tick above 37 minutes per game. He’s a leader who grinds on both ends of the floor. The Raptors, despite being bruised up by injuries all season, are sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference. That alone is pretty remarkable.
If I’m being honest, I crowdsourced this one. Before submitting my ballot, I put the Lowry/Simmons question to seven NBA types—a mix of scouts, coaches and front office personnel. Six came back with Lowry. That tilted the scale for me.
Devonte’ Graham on the rise in Charlotte
Team building in the NBA isn’t rocket science. The teams that hit on draft picks tend to win. The teams that don’t, lose. That’s especially true of smaller-market teams that traditionally struggle to attract top-shelf free agents. That’s what makes the breakout season for Devonte’ Graham so important for Charlotte’s future.
A second-round pick in the 2018 draft, Graham has emerged as a candidate, perhaps even a front-runner, for the NBA’s Most Improved award. Graham shuffled between Charlotte and the Hornets G League affiliate in Greensboro last season, playing just 46 games for the big club. The offseason defection of Kemba Walker and the retirement of Tony Parker created an opportunity, and Graham has seized it, posting 18.6 points per game while connecting on 38.6% of his three’s.
While playing behind Walker and Parker limited Graham’s minutes, it offered a valuable education.
“With Tony, it was how he prepares, how he took care of his body,” Graham told SI.com. “He was always getting treatment. Even when he wasn’t hurt. He would say that if you want to play for 20 years, the main thing is your body. You have got to eat right and treat people right. Kemba, it was his toughness. No matter who he was going up against, all five-foot-whatever he is, he had that heart. There were never nights when you thought he didn’t look right. He was always the aggressive guard, no matter who he was playing.”
Graham has shown mental toughness in Charlotte, a trait he credits his mother, Dewanna King, and grandmother Doris for instilling in him. Dewanna was just 14 when she gave birth to Devonte’, often struggling to make ends meet as a single mother in North Carolina. She went to great lengths, however, to make sure her son never knew it.
“She would never let it show if she was struggling,” Graham said. “There was always a smile on her face. It just seemed like she was always happy. She didn’t have a job for 14 months during the recession. But you never knew because she was always positive. It was always, ‘Keep going, it will get better.’ She wouldn’t tell me if things were bad. Mentally, you realize later, everything is what it is because of the way they raised me. I go through life how they were. Loving, caring but always fighting.”
It’s been a challenging season in Charlotte. The Hornets are likely lottery-bound for the fourth year in a row. But Terry Rozier has played well after a so-so start, and Rozier and Graham have formed a strong scoring backcourt. Graham claims to have no issue costarring in a smallish guard rotation, reminding a reporter that he shared a backcourt with Frank Mason III for three seasons at Kansas. And he says he likes the chemistry he has developed with Rozier.
“I used to watch Terry a lot,” Graham said. “I loved his game. We are two aggressive guards who can score, who can make plays. It works.”
Graham is a strong candidate to play in the Rising Stars game at All-Star weekend and is in the mix for the three-point contest. But as satisfied as Graham is with how he has played this season, he’s looking forward to the offseason and the opportunity he will have to get even better.
“I feel like this will be my first real offseason coming up,” Graham said. “I didn’t play as much last year. I didn’t know how much travel, playing, how important it is to take care of your body. I didn’t have to eat healthy or get as much sleep as I should. This will be a big summer for me, getting my body right for next year.”
Do the Lakers have a Kyle Kuzma problem?
The Lakers would probably like to bottle up Kuzma’s performance on Thursday in Brooklyn: 16 points on a tidy 55.9% shooting, including connecting on 60% of his three’s. He played 28 minutes in L.A.’s 128-113 win.
Kuzma has struggled to find a role in the new-look Lakers rotation. A foot injury suffered while playing for USA Basketball killed his chance at developing chemistry with his new teammates in training camp, and life as a third option has been challenging. When James and/or Davis are out of the lineup, Kuzma plays well, a 36-point performance against Oklahoma City earlier this month offering an example. When the team is healthy, Kuzma can disappear, as he did in a blowout loss to Boston Monday.
On Monday, I asked Lakers coach Frank Vogel what the team needs to see from Kuzma in the second half of the season.
“It’s a different type of challenge when you have a lot of guys out, like in the OKC game, when he knows he is going to play 36, 38 minutes, to playing behind or with two of the best players in the game,” Vogel said. “It’s not like he’s running the second unit, either. We play two second units, one typically with Anthony, one typically with LeBron. Usually we have one of those guys in there at all times and play through those guys.”
“I never saw him as (not) confident. But his rhythm is growing, with our offense, with his new teammates, with the defensive schemes. All those things when they change frequently for a young player, it can be a challenge. But I think he is coming around … he has got to make the right plays. Sometimes that means you don’t take as many shots because the defense is rotating to you or double teaming you. That’s something we preach to the whole team … it’s not different with Kyle. Some nights he is going to facilitate more, some nights he is going to be the recipient more.”
Kuzma’s uneven play has fueled speculation that the Lakers may look to move him for a more team-friendly part. That seems unlikely, however. Kuzma is under an extremely team-friendly contract, earning just under $2 million this season and about $3.5 million in ’20-21. That limits the salary level of the players the Lakers can absorb in return.
More importantly: Giving up on Kuzma this early isn’t something the Lakers should be interested in. Kuzma is just 24. He’s a proven NBA scorer. He’s experiencing a learning curve playing alongside James and Davis, but there simply is not enough evidence to declare the fit in L.A. a failure. Expect the Lakers to hold on to Kuzma in the hopes he develops into a reliable third scoring option this season—and beyond.
Is Davis Bertans available?
This is a question a lot of league executives are asking these days. Inquiries to Washington have gone nowhere; several executives tell SI.com that the Wizards wouldn’t even discuss a deal. Some teams, though, are holding out hope Washington will make Bertans available before the trade deadline.
The argument against trading Bertans is that he fits the Wizards' roster moving forward. With John Wall on the road to recovery, a 6’10” power forward who makes 40-plus percent of his threes is incredibly valuable. Washington can already envision the holes Bertans can create for Wall next season. At 27, Bertans fits into the Wizards' youth movement, which includes center Thomas Bryant and promising rookie Rui Hachimura. Ownership wants to make the playoffs next season, and a healthy Bertans will help them get there.
The argument for trading him is that the Wizards can lose him for nothing. Bertans will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and the Wizards—or whatever team acquires him—will have his Bird rights. But Bertans can decided he wants to play elsewhere, and the Wizards have no power to stop him. Given the current landscape and Bertans's affordable salary ($7 million), interest in him will continue to grow. The Wizards could extract a No. 1 pick for Bertans—and maybe more.
Boston—which has had major shooting issues, particularly with the second unit—is interested, and the Celtics could have as many as three No. 1 picks in next June’s draft, including Memphis’s top-six protected selection.
The Sixers are another team badly in need of shooting and have former first-round pick Zhaire Smith who, after a bizarre rookie season, is playing well for Philadelphia’s G League affiliate, to dangle, and draft picks of their own to deal.
The Hawks, Lakers and Nuggets have also reportedly expressed interest.
This will be an interesting call for Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard. Bertans will likely command a $12 million to $15 million per year contract this summer, and if interest in him is strong, Washington could be forced to overpay for him. Dealing him before the deadline could yield multiple cheaper assets the Wizards could use to continue to reboot the franchise. Stay tuned.