Selecting this year’s All-Star team was a particularly daunting process. For several overt reasons, the league feels less consistent and borderline unreadable right now. At the same time, it’s brimming with ridiculous talent. At least 30 names seem like obvious shoo-ins when you say them out loud. Sadly, only 24 can make it. These are the ones I chose.
Joel Embiid, Sixers
Nothing is more frustrating for a defense than Embiid’s mid-range jumper. Once a source of relief for those who were thrilled to watch basketball’s most physically imposing player show off his preternatural finesse instead, it’s now arguably the most effective part of Embiid’s entire attack. In fact, no player who’s attempted at least 50 of these shots is more accurate than Philly’s center.
Embiid has spent most of the season either 0.1 points ahead of or behind Nikola Jokic for the league lead in PER, and his True Shooting rivals what Steph Curry posted as a unanimous MVP winner in 2016. There are no answers for this man, and his numbers would be even more impressive if he actually had to compete in the fourth quarter of so many blowout wins.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
We’re at the point with Giannis where a few blemishes on an otherwise immaculate painting have overshadowed the brilliance. I’m guilty as anyone of feeling this way, because even though no ceiling hangs over the 25-year-old, improvement in some areas (like, the post) can be more meaningful than others (like, the three-point line). Beyond that criticism, Antetokounmpo once again looks like a strong MVP candidate. If the Bucks go on a run and right their defense, he might even win it again.
Kevin Durant, Nets
Sometimes I watch Kevin Durant and wonder why he doesn’t make every single shot. In reality, all he’s done is make a career-high 43.4% of his threes, and average 29 points per game (a number he’s only topped twice, in 2010 and 2014). After missing all of last year with a ruptured Achilles, Durant doesn’t look better than he once did, but he’s essentially the same, which is to say he’s in conversation for the best player alive, which means he was a more automatic selection to start than everyone except LeBron James.
Bradley Beal, Wizards
Ideally, anytime a player opens the season by scoring at least 30 points in 15 of their first 22 games—including a 60 ball against the best team in the conference—they should start in the All-Star game. In reality, it’s a little more complicated than that. Washington’s relentless futility has a place in this conversation, and being the best player on arguably the NBA’s worst team typically isn’t much to write home about.
But sometimes there’s only so much one person can do. Beal leads the league in scoring (32.8 points) and usage (36.6), and if those two marks hold he’ll finish this season as just the 11th player in NBA history with over 30 points per game and a usage above 35. (Right now, he’s doing it with a higher True Shooting percentage than everyone in that club except James Harden and Bernard King.)
It’s hard not to reward this production, especially when it’s earned in the face of so many obstacles that have nothing to do with basketball. Beal’s consistency against defenses that have no collective duty besides trying to clamp him down is silly. When Russell Westbrook isn’t on the floor, he literally doubles his assist percentage without any drop in efficiency despite sporting a 38.4 usage rate.
The Wizards have an average offense when Beal plays and are an icicle when he sits. Beal’s numbers stand out this season and when compared to nearly every other scorer in league history. There are very bad teams every year. Every year we don’t see someone score the ball like Beal has.
Jaylen Brown, Celtics
Aesthetically and statistically, Brown has become a sleeker version of Kawhi Leonard. There are fewer miles on his odometer and less accomplishments to brag about, but just look at their numbers, side by side.
The timing of Jaylen’s bloom, and how it coincides with the pressure-packed void that was created by Gordon Hayward’s departure, makes his rise even more impressive. Brown is as confident as they come. When I profiled him last year, Brown went out of his way to correct me for using the term “bounce-back season,” claiming he could’ve produced similar numbers during the previous year had his role been less tight.
Well, his role this year has come with more responsibilities than ever before and he’s stared down every last one. Brown scores efficiently at all three levels, facilitates, defends, cuts and drives and makes two or three moves every game that make you think “if this man isn’t an All-Star starter why even have a team?”
Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Despite a bout with coronavirus that kept him out of five games in the middle of January, Tatum is showing slight statistical improvement across the board. Even as they’ve lost four of their last five games, with Tatum no-showing against the Wizards on Valentine’s Day, this is generally fantastic news for the Celtics, being that Tatum is 22 years old and coming off a breakout All-NBA campaign.
His shot selection is a constant push-and-pull between inefficient looks that stars like him have a green light to take and efficient looks that defenses have no answer for. Too many thorny floaters and mid-post fallaways, not enough step-back threes and take-no-prisoner drives to the cup that send him to the foul line. Tatum’s free-throw rate is back to where it was during his second season—not great—and he attempts as many field goals from about 4-14 feet as he does at the rim.
Think about this: 23.7% of Tatum’s shots are pull-up threes and he’s making almost 40% of them. Meanwhile, 21.6% are pull-up twos and he’s making 37% of those. This isn’t a call for him to excommunicate the mid-range from his diet. It’s a useful zone when exploited within the flow of Boston’s offense, but the gap there needs to widen.
All that said, before Sunday he was averaging 26.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game, with elite defense and on/off splits that continue a career-long trend in support of Tatum as one of the more important two-way players in all of basketball. He can function at just about any position and execute just about any instruction. Once he cuts the fat out of where and how he collects his points, there may not be a more unstoppable scorer on the planet.
Khris Middleton, Bucks
After missing out on joining the 50/40/90 club because of a 49.7 field goal percentage last year, Middleton is once again positioned to cross all three benchmarks (as of Saturday night, the only thing holding him back on Saturday night was his 89.9 free-throw percentage.)
He’s the most potent shotmaker on an offense that’s more efficient than any since at least 1974, with numbers that explode without Antetokounmpo. Outside the unimpeachable shooting, Middleton’s uptick as a playmaker is worth noting. He’s averaging a career and team-high 6.2 assists per game, more than LaMelo Ball, Steph Curry, and Mike Conley. (And, more important for the purpose of this exercise, over twice as many as Tobias Harris, who has otherwise been Middleton’s offensive doppelganger this season.)
Look at that slick off-the-dribble, left-handed, bounce pass he makes after Giannis slips behind Taurean Prince. A couple years ago, Middleton would’ve assessed this situation and pulled up around the free-throw line for a contested two (that still probably would’ve gone in). But he’s even more dangerous with this type of vision in his bag.
Bam Adebayo, Heat
Adebayo’s trajectory is Gamestop stock, aided by molecule-shattering athleticism, rigid work ethic, and a venturesome head coach who pushes the boundaries of what a starting center’s role should be until they splinter.
Bam responded to last season’s devastating finale—injured, flaming out in the Finals—by not only adding a mid-range jump shot to an attack that previously didn’t have one, but making it a legitimate source of comfort. Adebayo didn’t/couldn’t really shoot last year. Now he’s drilling long twos at a decent volume more accurately than Anthony Davis. Ho-hum, nothing to see here.
Adebayo’s growth doesn’t come in baby steps. He’s shooting 80% at the rim and now drills 85% of his free-throws (which matters quite a bit since he draws six fouls per game—eighth highest in the league). It’d be weird to describe his game with a word like inquisitive, but that’s precisely what it is. He’s constantly sticking his nose where, for generations, players who looked just like him couldn’t/wouldn’t/didn’t explore.
Now that he’s averaging about 20 points per game—somehow more efficient despite shifting 20 percent of his shots from the basket to outside the paint—on top of five assists and realistic 1-through-5 flexibility on the other end, it’s impossible to keep Adebayo off this list.
Kyrie Irving, Nets
James Harden, Nets
Both these stars deserve acclaim. Harden leads the league in assists and minutes per game with a True Shooting percentage that hasn’t been this high since his last year in Oklahoma City. Irving is a riveting spectacle who successfully one ups his own artful genius every time he touches a basketball. Combined, on the same team, their games are panoramic carnage—especially in the half-court, where Brooklyn’s offense is far and away in first place when matched up against the best defenses in the league.
That said, Harden and Irving did not make it because 1) defense matters and neither has decided to play much of it, and 2) when we’re splitting hairs trying to separate them from other worthy candidates, Irving’s self-imposed seven-game absence in early January plus Harden’s relentless self-sabotaging effort to get dealt out of Houston count.
Except for Mason Jones, every single player who’s stepped on the floor in a Rockets jersey this season has a higher on-court net rating than Harden. When he played, Houston was outscored by 6.6 points per 100 possessions. Their offense has predictably nosedived—thanks to numerous injuries felt beyond Harden’s loss—but their defense’s journey from decrepit to top-3 doesn’t feel like the grandest coincidence.
Both were fined for violating the NBA’s health and safety protocols, and as awesome as each has been when they do play, rewarding Brown and Beal for their consistent excellence through on-court situations that were equally strenuous felt appropriate.
Julius Randle, Knicks
One of the coolest things about Randle’s season—which I still can’t believe is real—is how successful he’s been without deviating too far from the player he always was. He still isolates a ton, half his shots remain unassisted, and it’s okay to be suspicious about the number of long twos he’s taken.
But how he’s learned to balance brawn and grace without wandering too far outside the team’s action plan is worth celebrating. Only three players have attempted more mid-range jumpers than Randle, who’s more accurate from that distance than Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, and Luka Dončić.
While leading the NBA in minutes, he’s averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds per game (at 6’ 8” Randle has grabbed more defensive rebounds than any other player) and owns a higher assist rate than every big except Jokic and Draymond Green.
He misses over half his two-point shots (not great) but after shooting just 27.7% from behind the three-point line last year, Randle has been flirting with the 40% mark (on over four attempts per game!) for most of the season. Put a wing on him and he’s going to the post. Put a big on him and he’ll rumble past and either find a big in the dunker spot or kick out to an open shooter.
With Mitchell Robinson set to miss over a month, it’ll be interesting to see how consistently New York can get stops when/if Randle plays the five. But the fact that he’s logged so many minutes on one of the league’s more stout defenses, after years of evidence suggesting that was impossible, is, almost by itself, worth sending Randle to the All-Star game.
Zach LaVine, Bulls
It’s been a “what else do you want from me?” type of season from Zach LaVine. He was on the fence here for weeks until I saw a stat that finally tipped me onto a side I never thought I’d land on: 45 players have tallied more fourth quarter minutes than LaVine this season. Zero have scored more points.
There’s more. LaVine’s fourth quarter usage rate is 39.3%, with a 120.1 offensive rating and 62.8 true shooting percentage. The picture is less rosy in clutch minutes, and it’s hard for LaVine to shake his long-standing reputation on the defensive end when the Bulls allow a whopping 17.7 more points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. When he sits, Chicago’s defensive rating is 99.0. For reference, the Lakers lead the league at 104.5. None of this is a coincidence. LaVine is still everything but fastidious off the ball, which his eyes stay glued to regardless of where his man is standing.
The asymmetrical influence has never been my cup of tea. How his game impacts winning is unknowable because it’s yet to happen. But sometimes there’s a statistical threshold—even in this weird season that seemingly endears itself to gifted scorers who can take advantage of an increasingly random framework—that can’t be overlooked once it’s breached. LaVine is there.
His True Shooting percentage is not only higher than Trae Young, Collin Sexton, Fred VanVleet, Gordon Hayward, Domas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, Nikola Vucevic, Tobias Harris, and just about any other serious candidate for this final spot (not to mention Nikola Jokic, Harden, Irving, Middleton, and many more), but the only player who’s ever used at least 30% of their team’s possessions with a 65.0 true shooting percentage for a full season is Curry, during his second MVP campaign. Right now Curry is doing it again, along with Embiid and LaVine.
Also! According to Cleaning the Glass, LaVine is a few decimal points from joining Durant as the only non-big shooting at least 70% at the rim (LaVine’s at 69%), 50% on long twos, and 40% from behind the three-point line. (The 70/50/40 club should definitely be a thing.)
The Bulls aren’t a good team and LaVine’s flaws intensify their own. But sometimes measuring a player’s all-around impressiveness can be boiled down to the ease at which they get buckets. LaVine collects them with less effort than most. This doesn’t mean he’s “better” than a few other worthy candidates, but through a seven-week sample size the scoring is impressive enough to sanitize any defects.
Honorable mentions, in no particular order
Nikola Vucevic, Magic
Trae Young, Hawks
John Collins, Hawks
Jerami Grant, Pistons
Malcolm Brogdon, Pacers
Domantas Sabonis, Pacers
Gordon Hayward, Hornets
Fred VanVleet, Raptors
Kyle Lowry, Raptors
Collin Sexton, Cavaliers
Ben Simmons, Sixers
Tobias Harris, Sixers
LeBron James, Lakers
If you could travel back 10 years in time and tell people that 36-year-old LeBron James will be one of the most accurate high-volume pull-up three-point shooters in the NBA, still going strong as the top player on arguably the league’s most well-rounded team, it wouldn’t crack the top 100 most insane topics you’d want to get off your chest, but nobody would believe you on this one, either.
It’d be trite to say that LeBron has transcended greatness or exceeded the impossible expectations that have shadowed him for two decades, but all that’s never felt more true. He’s not a basketball player so much as a monolithic stand in for athletic dominance. Some of his numbers are unprocessable. Take his 31.4 usage rate as a perfect example. Coming into this season, his career average was 31.5. LeBron and decline mix like oil and water.
Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
It was either Kawhi or Paul George in this spot. Their statistical resumes are nearly identical, and it’s hard to name any two-way wings that are having definitely superior starts to the season. In the end, I sided with Leonard’s consistency over George’s efficiency. It feels strange to demote one of this season’s most accurate all-around shooters (50/48/90 splits that haven’t deviated much over the past seven weeks are no joke), but Leonard is working on his own 50/40/90 chase, with a slightly higher usage rate while attempting almost 90 more shots.
Coupled with Leonard’s turnover rate being half of George’s, the Clippers’ barely keeping it together when PG is on the court by himself, and fact that George’s recent foot injury will continue to stretch their widening gap in total minutes, and the edge goes to the two-time Finals MVP.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Jokic would finish first, second, or third on every rational person’s MVP ballot if the season ended today. So, yes, he’s a starter.
Damian Lillard, Blazers
While trying to navigate major injuries to their second and third-best players, Lillard has resumed his longstanding position as Portland’s north star. Statistically, there’s been no drop off anywhere in his game from last year to now, while right now the Blazers have a higher winning percentage than the Nuggets and Nets. He’s still arguably the deadliest pick-and-roll scorer in the game and second only to Curry in offensive real plus-minus.
For this all to be the case without a healthy CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic in the lineup, while Lillard has had to steady and accommodate several new faces who were brought in to elevate the defense, is remarkable. Dame time forever.
Stephen Curry, Warriors
What is more fun than watching Curry single handedly validate the hot hand theory? Nothing. He is as cinematic as ever, so far ahead from everybody else in ORPM (as mentioned above) that the gap between him and third-place Giannis is nearly the same as Giannis and 22nd-ranked Jordan Clarkson.
Curry has miraculously picked up where he left off before Durant moved to the Bay Area, but five years older and with a significantly less talented supporting cast. If we hadn’t already seen this movie—those outrageously deep shots, that unparalleled efficiency, the flair, the gravity, the inconceivableness of his entire existence—there would be no other NBA storyline worth talking about.
Anthony Davis, Lakers
The word “disappointing” is a little too harsh to describe AD’s season. His numbers are understandably and markedly down, but without consequence. This 72-game regular season was never going to be his friend. The playoffs are what matter and the Lakers are winning regardless. We know what Davis is capable of in a big playoff series when his team needs him to take over.
But at the same time, when the Lakers won the title Davis had ascended to a level of dominance unmatched by every other player inside the bubble. He was in his own universe, assertive and invaluable on both ends.
The fact that he (probably) won’t start in this game, at 27 years old, is just a wee bit...strange. Davis isn’t often mentioned as a serious candidate for MVP or Defensive Player of the Year, either. This doesn’t mean he’s worse than he was. It means a career-low 33% of his shots are at the rim, he dines from the mid-range as much as any other big, his free-throw rate is the lowest it’s been since his rookie season, only 21% of his above-the-break threes are connecting, and his usage rate is at its lowest point in seven years. Like, there are 22 players (including Jerami Grant!) averaging more points than this guy. That’s weird!
Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Is this pick boring? Yes. Is it obvious? Yes. Over the past half decade fewer things in life have been more consistent than Gobert’s defensive impact on a basketball team. That continues this season, where the Jazz have outscored opponents by 227 points when he’s on the court (only lower than Kawhi and Mike Conley, a teammate) and been outscored by eight points when he sits. He scares grown men, never complains about post touches, and is rejecting more shots per game than ever before despite averaging his fewest minutes since 2015.
Paul George, Clippers
Most of what needs to be said about George can be seen under what’s written about Kawhi. He’s (almost?) a dark-horse MVP candidate whose jumper is softer than a marshmallow.
Luka Dončić, Mavericks
Considering he’s 21 years old and regularly slicing opposing defenses to pieces with a preternatural sense that maybe five other players in the sport’s history have ever had so early in their career, most Dončić criticism is laughable. His three-point shot will eventually click, and the Mavericks will (hopefully) put a more talented roster around him one day. For now, just enjoy this boyish wonder. He leads the NBA in assist rate while scoring more points on drives (14.2) than anyone in NBA.com’s database ever has.
Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
Even if it feels a bit extraneous to phrase it this way, one could call Mitchell the best player on the NBA’s best team and not be laughed out of a room. He’s been sublime throughout Utah’s race to the top of the standings, averaging 25, 5, and 5 with a pull-up three that will melt your face. In his last 10 games, 24% of all Mitchell’s shots have been off-the-dribble and behind the arc. He’s made 40% of them. If both those numbers can be sustained throughout the postseason, Utah has a real shot to win it all.
De’Aaron Fox, Kings
Fox’s season is worthy of its own Amanda Gorman-narrated mixtape. His hesitation dribble, mid-range step-back, and blinding speed have all intersected in the most delightful ways, and the leap he’s shown as a three-point shooter over the past few weeks has not coincidentally intersected with Sacramento’s rise towards respectability. Fox’s assist rate is higher than Mitchell, Devin Booker, Brandon Ingram, and DeMar DeRozan’s.
Additionally, the only player who’s attempted more shots driving to the basket is Dončić and nobody has earned more trips to the foul line when attacking the cup. Despite the higher volume of total drives, Fox’s field goal percentage on these shots is the same as Curry, Irving, and Lillard. He’s also shooting 70% at the rim—as a 6’3” person—with a floater that doubles as a taunting violation.
Thoughts and prayers to coaches who must find a way to slow Fox down after ducking under screens gets erased from the dwindling list of possible solutions. In situations that have a high impact on winning (i.e. close games in the fourth quarter), Fox has scored more points than every player except Jokic. It’s fine if you want to put Ingram, Booker, or even DeRozan here instead. But none have been more electric, with less help, than Fox.
Zion Williamson, Pelicans
Disentangling Zion and Ingram in this process was hard. They’re New Orleans’ two best and most important players, and despite their stylistic and positional differences, the Pelicans outscore opponents by 4.4 points per 100 possessions when both are on the floor and are outscored by about the same number (6.4 and 6.5 points per 100 possessions) when one plays without the other.
Williamson has defensive limitations that are exacerbated by New Orleans’ pack-the-paint strategy, and his field goal percentage around the rim is probably lower than it’d be if he could growl through wider lanes. Sometimes his own hesitancy to shoot outside the paint dries up scoring opportunities that can’t simply be solved by placing him at the five.
But in the big picture, all concerns are pebbles stacked beside a mountain of reason to be excited about this dude’s present production and entirely unknown ceiling. If he wanted to be the NBA’s scariest lob threat he could be, just lingering around the dunker’s spot, finishing dump off passes, and pancaking defenders with sudden duck-ins. In that specific role, positioned as an exclamation point, Zion could still be a star.
Instead, Stan Van Gundy has opened the door of possibility; Zion is increasingly used as a point guard, especially against teams that have to throw a slower big on him. Watch this play, where Steven Adams occupies Myles Turner’s attention just enough by setting a pin-down on the left elbow as Zion leaves Domas Sabonis in the dust.
The mismatches are even more devastating when the other team downsizes and a wing is forced to guard a screen-and-roll involving Zion. There are no good choices for Jeremy Lamb here.
Whenever Zion subs in a sense of impending doom blankets the other team. He’s attempted and made more shots in the restricted area than every other player and is sixth in free-throw attempts. All due respect to Ingram, but when coaching staffs are strategizing to stop the Pelicans, Williamson is the first priority. He makes whoever guards him look like they’re moving underwater.
Honorable mentions, in no particular order
DeMar DeRozan, Spurs
Chris Paul, Suns
Devin Booker, Suns
Brandon Ingram, Pelicans
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder
C.J. McCollum, Blazers
Christian Wood, Rockets
Mike Conley, Jazz (quick note about this omission: 😔)