It's time to split hairs and pick some All-Stars!
• I start from scratch and ignore the fan vote. It's more fun to pick all 12 spots.
• I follow the same rules as fans, media and players in selecting starters: two guards and three frontcourt players. (I have an official ballot for starters.) Coaches have greater positional flexibility picking seven reserves.
• Availability and track record both matter. There is no hard-and-fast rule for how to apply each criterion. Every player debate is a little different given present-day performance, competition within the conference, and past accomplishments.
• The toughest dilemma is the second guard next to Walker, enjoying maybe the best shooting season of his career and driving with a head-down, north-south decisiveness that has him commanding Boston's offense without monopolizing it. He is still a showman -- a crouched blur of in-and-out dribbles and crossovers -- without any wasted motion.
Young's statistics are overwhelming: 29 points per game and almost nine assists; nice shooting marks considering his volume of 3s; and advanced numbers that lap the field. But you can't be the worst defensive player in the league on the team with the second-worst record and start the All-Star Game. Can we see Young hold a defensive stance for more than two consecutive seconds first?
• Young is a great offensive player and a sinkhole on the other end. Simmons is a very good offensive player and a multipositional destroyer on defense. Entire Philadelphia lineups exist and survive only because Simmons can cover any opposing player. He should be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Simmons' refusal to shoot is a liability that multiplies in importance in the playoffs, but it should not overshadow all he does on offense for a Philly team not exactly overflowing with off-the-bounce oomph. To win in the NBA, you need a baseline amount of blazing power -- someone who gains separation in a pinch, outleaps opposing rebounders, bulldozes smaller guys, and outruns everyone.
Embiid brings that in discrete situations. Simmons brings it everywhere, all the time. You feel the absence of it when he sits. Brett Brown feels it too; Simmons ranks fourth in minutes.
Simmons is a freight train in transition who gathers strength in motion precisely because of his versatility on defense. One end flows into the other -- basketball as it is meant to be. If Simmons ends a Philly defensive stop on a point guard, the other team flies around in wide-eyed panic trying to shuffle out of that mismatch. Amid such crisscrossing chaos, Simmons appears even faster and more explosive.
Simmons is fifth in the league in assists, right behind Young, and few of them are cheapies. Simmons creates something from nothing through sheer force. No one has assisted on more 3s, per data provided by the NBA.
Philly has outscored opponents when Simmons plays without Embiid, and Simmons has led the Sixers to a 5-3 record with Embiid recuperating from finger surgery.
But Simmons' lack of a jump shot matters. The obsession over his fit with Embiid is worth the hand-wringing. Simmons is shooting just 58% at the line, and he sometimes dumps the ball off too early in transition instead of barreling to the rim and inviting contact. (This has been less true of late.)
It's nice that his assists aren't cheap, but that is in part because the limits of his game preclude him from cheapies. Imagine the rote kickouts that would reveal themselves if defenders had to chase Simmons over screens.
Philly's offense can look stilted in late-game situations, when defenses lock in and the Sixers feel less comfortable giving Simmons the ball.
A surprising number of executives would place Simmons into a lower tier of the All-Star conversation, with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal, Malcolm Brogdon and other borderline guys. That is a little much. Simmons has played his way toward a starting spot; I watched up close as he eviscerated Brooklyn with a 34-point, 12-rebound, 12-assist, 5-steal masterpiece on Monday. I'd have zero issue with him starting.
But do you worry a bit about how he'll fare on offense at the end of a slowed-down, playoff-style game? If you do, it feels like a slight stretch to give him the nod here.
• And so: We honor Lowry, despite 11 missed games and so-so shooting by his standards. He is a two-way star. He brings zero fit issues. He is as malleable as any perimeter player. Lowry is averaging 20 points (four more than Simmons) and six free throws per game after making way last season for Kawhi Leonard, and he has not sacrificed anything as a passer or defender.
Lowry has made up for some of those missed games by playing a ton; he is tied with James Harden for the league lead in minutes per game.
Lowry is just a brilliant, winning player. Every second he is on the floor, he is doing the exact right thing -- half-rotations on defense, extra passes, impromptu screens, little shifts along the arc to open up driving lanes, late switches, tipped rebounds. Because he is a threat everywhere -- as a shooter, cutter and quick-twitch passer -- defenses follow every one of those moves. When eyeballs fixate on Lowry, other Raptors slip into the void.
The guy is a basketball algorithm come to life.
• Embiid has missed 15 games, right on the border where I really start to care. He has played 554 fewer minutes than Bam Adebayo.
But come on: We're talking about Joel Embiid, and he'll be back very soon. In the deeper West field, his missed time would be more problematic. But the East isn't as loaded, and Embiid has earned leeway as a proven two-way star with some playoff bona fides.
Pascal Siakam has missed 11 games, and he plateaued after a fiery start. It feels premature to slide Adebayo or the other center on my reserve list ahead of Embiid.
• Twenty games in, Siakam was ahead of Butler. Siakam is still averaging 24 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game on decent shooting splits. He is a candidate for an All-Defensive spot, smothering across the positional spectrum.
But Butler has passed him over about 200 more minutes. Butler isn't shooting as well as Siakam, but he has compensated by dishing 6.4 dimes per game and earning a bonanza of free throws -- more than nine per game, double Siakam's average and by far a career high. Butler is a ferocious defender who has struck the right balance on offense between blending into Miami's system as a bruising cutter and taking over when it matters. The advanced numbers aren't close; it's Butler in a landslide.
Siakam belongs, though.
• The statistical cases for Sabonis and Adebayo are airtight. The eye test is even more persuasive. They are indispensable hubs on both ends. Well-rounded bigs provide a ready-made identity -- a look and feel and style teams can fall back on and build atop. Sabonis is probably a little better on offense -- a back-to-the-basket bully, and slightly more polished passer.
Adebayo is right on his tail in that regard -- and way ahead on defense. He can both protect the basket and switch onto any opposing player, lending Miami an enviable schematic flexibility.
Both are monsters. They crave every loose ball. They want to rip away your soul.
• Middleton is better on both ends than he was last season, when he made his All-Star debut. He is flirting with 50/40/90 shooting and is more consistent on defense. He is averaging 31 points and six dimes per 36 minutes when he plays without Antetokounmpo, and Milwaukee has outscored opponents by 12 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.
It's easy to lump Milwaukee's supporting cast together as a bunch of faceless eager beavers orbiting Antetokounmpo -- and working together to thrive when he sits. There is some truth in that. Antetokounmpo is the MVP, and Milwaukee runs a dozen deep. But how does that construction hold up if the No. 2 guy is 20% worse than Middleton?
• The last two spots came down to Young, Brown, Tatum, Brogdon and Beal. You could pick any two of them, honestly.
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• It's fair to ask why Young gets in over Beal and Zach LaVine -- other offense-first scorers on awful teams. I thought about disqualifying all three and picking a second player on a good team. I just couldn't find a persuasive case.
Tatum has the best dossier, but he is shooting a career-worst 47% on 2s and is the fourth-best passer among Boston's heavy-rotation guys.
Tatum is ahead of Brown as a distributor, and underrated on defense -- Brown's equal. Brad Stevens has leaned most on Tatum to prop up Boston's offense when Walker rests. I'd bet on Tatum being better than Brown over his career -- and probably over the rest of this season.
But Tatum and Brown are still mostly finishers, and Brown -- 39% from deep, 55% on 2s -- has finished more accurately over the relevant sample. Tatum's case isn't so strong that Boston should get a third All-Star.
• Brogdon was the other really tough omission. He carried Indiana early, and has formed a delightful wink-wink chemistry with Sabonis. Brogdon's numbers -- including games missed -- are roughly equal to Lowry's. But Brogdon averages seven fewer minutes per game, gets to the line less, and is shooting a tick worse from deep on way fewer attempts. He isn't quite as dynamic -- and not a five-time All-Star coming off a championship.
• Tobias Harris is so valuable to Philly as a shape-shifter. He is up to 36% from deep, and he has improved defending wings -- a must for this weirdo roster. But he is a paint-by-numbers playmaker, and his case isn't compelling enough to grant Philly a third All-Star.
• Other sneaky good candidates on decent-and-better teams who just miss: Eric Bledsoe, T.J. Warren, Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier. I selected Bledsoe ahead of Middleton last season, and by some measures, Bledsoe has been even better this time around. He is an All-Defensive candidate again.
But Middleton has surpassed him on the Bucks' hierarchy. Fifteen points and five dimes per game just doesn't get it done in this field.
• And now, the loudest debate in the league: Trae Young.
I couldn't exclude Young just because Atlanta is slightly more terrible than the also terrible Wizards and Bulls. With John Collins suspended 25 games, the Hawks didn't have an NBA-level roster. With Young on the floor now, they are a normal bad team; they at least have a chance. Without him, the Hawks are roadkill: minus-13 points per 100 possessions, which is more or less grounds for relegation.
Beal's numbers -- 27.5 points and six dimes per game -- are a tick behind Young's. Beal also is shooting an ugly (for him) 31% from deep; Young is at 37% on much higher volume. Beal hasn't been the same since leg issues flared up.
Beal is the superior defender almost by default, but it has been a rough season and a half for him on that end. His advanced metrics -- overall and some measuring just defense -- are below Young's. The Wizards have been staggeringly worse with Beal on the floor. There is a ton of noise in those numbers, but they are so dramatic, you can't totally ignore them.
I voted Beal All-NBA last season. I just can't find the case to choose him over Young now.
• I can't quite get there with LaVine, despite his recent scoring surge. He tries harder than Young on defense, but LaVine is still harmful. The biggest difference is in their playmaking: Young averages 8.6 dimes per game with a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio; LaVine has 177 assists -- about four per game -- and 147 turnovers.
Some of that is built into the constructions of their teams. Young is everything for the Hawks; LaVine splits ballhandling duties with several players. Young also has coughed the ball up more than everyone but Harden.
But just watch them and you know: Young is a visionary playmaker. LaVine's passing is more prosaic. If he wants to win, Young has to reorient his game 30 degrees or so in the team-first direction. He can get a little hoggy over-dribbling, and perhaps assist-hunting. He needs to move and screen when he doesn't have the ball instead of standing around, waiting to get it back.
But Young profiles as the No. 1 shot-creator of a functional NBA offense -- the most valuable player type in the league; he's in, by a slim margin.
• The last frontcourt spot is between Leonard and Nikola Jokic, with Rudy Gobert on their heels. Gobert has been sensational -- probably Utah's MVP by a hair over Donovan Mitchell. If Gobert doesn't make his first All-Star team this year, the Jazz should boycott.
But Leonard and Jokic serve as on-ball fulcrums for high-level NBA offenses in a way Gobert can't. Gobert might be the league's best screen-setter. He improves his footwork and touch rim-running for buckets every season. But Gobert needs an elite ballhandling partner to unlock his game.
There is no shame in that! Every star needs another star or two. Leonard and Jokic are a little less context dependent; their scoring and passing -- all the extra attention they draw -- lift everyone around them. That is the rarest sort of talent in the league.
At first, I had Jokic -- mostly because he has played almost 300 more minutes than the king of Please-Don't-Call-It-Load-Management-Anymore.
Jokic's play has churned upward after a somewhat listless first dozen games. Since Dec. 1, Jokic is averaging 22 points, 10 rebounds and almost seven assists per game on 54% shooting -- including 40% from deep. He is posting up with what passes for vigor on Planet Joker.
He also has been one of the league's best clutch scorers, rare for a center. Jokic is 28-of-51 in the last five minutes of games when the score is within five points, and Denver is a whopping plus-52 in 97 such minutes, per NBA.com. He has nailed a bunch of game-tying and go-ahead shots.
Plodding appearances aside, the Nuggets' defense remains stingier with Jokic on the floor. He has swiping, meat hook hands and smart feet, and he inhales rebounds. He has held the Nuggets together amid injuries -- including to Paul Millsap, their keystone on defense -- and inconsistent performance from almost every perimeter player beyond Will Barton.
But then you remember you are about to demote Kawhi freaking Leonard -- two-time Finals MVP, and perhaps the best two-way player in the league. He is just flat better than Jokic. And in a development that should terrify everyone, Leonard has looked a little more like his peak San Antonio self on defense over the past two weeks.
Leonard is taking on tougher assignments with Paul George injured. Watch Leonard away from the ball these days, and you see an absolute menace -- vibrating on his toes, almost levitating, helping toward the paint but never overcommitting. He is not directly in any one passing lane, but with arms spread wide, he threatens all of them at once.
Ball-handlers see Leonard lurking, and overthink. They hesitate. His presence freaks them out of throwing the pass they should try, and coaxes them into the less profitable one Leonard wants them to make. You could even see Doncic hesitating and second-guessing passes in the Clippers' win in Dallas on Tuesday.
Given Jokic's slowish start, the 300-minute gap between these two really amounts to maybe 100 or so peak Jokic minutes -- not enough to demote Leonard.
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Ending up here became an easy decision as George and Towns missed more games. Towns is back, and the Wolves continue to lose. They are 9-18 with him and 6-11 without him.
Had Towns stayed healthy, he would be a worthy All-Star. He is one of the league's half-dozen or so best offensive players -- an all-court force who can do everything. Minnesota has zero offense without him. Zero. It is harder to watch than the movie "Hard to Watch" starring Tracy Jordan.
Towns' statistics -- traditional, advanced, whatever -- are so outrageous that some cumulative numbers he piled up over those 27 games outpace (by a lot) the same numbers for guys who have played every game.
But he remains a minus on defense; the Wolves allow 115 points per 100 possessions with Towns on the floor, and just 99 when he sits. That is larger than the gap between the league's best and worst defensive teams. That obviously isn't all on Towns. When he dials in, he can be a (slight) net-plus on that end.
But some of it is on him. Minnesota's defense stabilized when Gorgui Dieng filled Towns' starting spot.
More than that, the Booker/Ingram/Paul/Mitchell foursome have played 500-plus more minutes than Towns. They are balling every night. They are tireless. Their teams are lost without them.
The young guys -- Booker, Ingram and Mitchell -- are putting up huge numbers and improving as playmakers. Booker is furthest along, a whiz passing out of traps.
The Suns, Thunder and Jazz have all been way better with Booker, Paul and Mitchell on the floor, respectively. The Pelicans' scoring margin is about the same with and without Ingram, but I'm not sure that means much given how many rotation players have been in and out with injuries.
All four rank among the top 20 in crunch time field-goal attempts, and they are all shooting at least 40% in such situations -- not an easy bar to clear. Paul has been the league's best clutch player. He is a ridiculous 37-of-69 (53.6%) in the last five minutes of close games. His pull-up from the right elbow is the league's most reliable late-game weapon.
You can nitpick all four cases. Booker is a below-average defender, though he is improving and not as bad as advanced numbers paint him. (My guess: Those numbers punish Booker in the same way they do Klay Thompson, who has always fared poorly by such metrics because he doesn't get rebounds, steals or blocks.) Ingram is still learning on that end. Mitchell might need Gobert as much as Gobert needs him. Paul is averaging "only" 17 points per game, and splits ballhandling duties with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (a worthy candidate) and Dennis Schroder.
Meh. Every other candidate has warts at least as severe. Towns has not earned a reputation pick.
George has. He is that good -- a top-10 player who drives winning. It's fine if you want him in. I couldn't get there. George has played even fewer minutes and games than Towns. It didn't feel fair to Ingram, Booker, Paul or Mitchell, given all they do for their teams -- two winning teams, and two in the race for the No. 8 spot.
Westbrook had no case before the past 10 games, and has only a shaky one now. His advantage in counting stats over Ingram/Booker/Mitchell has vanished, and his advanced numbers trail all four guys. (Paul blows this field away in terms of advanced metrics.) Paul is a much better defender, and his shooting -- 37% from deep, compared to ghastly 23% for Westbrook -- makes him an easier fit.
Westbrook has fared well as a release valve when teams trap Harden. But what kind of damage would these other guys inflict if they played alongside someone who drew regular traps at half-court? They might render such schemes untenable. Teams trap Harden in part because of Westbrook's awful shooting. They invite him to launch.
For most of the season, Houston has been at its weakest when Westbrook plays without Harden.
• DeRozan is in the midst of his best-ever scoring stretch. LaMarcus Aldridge's new zest for 3s has opened the lane, and DeRozan is shooting a career-high 53% overall and 54% on 2s. San Antonio over the past month has outscored opponents by nine points per 100 possessions with DeRozan and Aldridge on the floor -- reversing a bad long-term trend.
But that trend persisted long enough to slot both DeRozan and Aldridge behind a strong field. The Spurs bleed points when DeRozan runs the show without Aldridge, and vice versa. DeRozan is a glaring minus on defense. Aldridge has lost a step.
• I don't really see a strong enough case for anyone else. Gilgeous-Alexander is behind Paul. Ja Morant isn't quite here yet. Feasting on reserves hurts Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams a little. Hassan Whiteside has monster numbers, but he doesn't pass the All-Star eye test and never did. Several other very good players fall short if you look closely: CJ McCollum, D'Angelo Russell, Danilo Gallinari (a better case than you might expect, but still), Bojan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela, Jamal Murray, Jrue Holiday, Buddy Hield, Barton, Schroder and a few others.)
You get only 12. That's the field -- at least on this ballot. See you next year!