Grading Every 2017 NBA All-Star Game Starter Selection

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2017

Grading Every 2017 NBA All-Star Game Starter Selection

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    The NBA's fans, players and media members have spoken, and the results are in: We have our official starting lineups for the 2017 All-Star Game.

    Keep the cork in those champagne bottles, though. You can celebrate later; We have important business that needs tending first.

    Blatant and unified sabotage is the only way to assemble bad All-Star starting fives under the new voting process. And while Zaza Pachulia stans tried their darnedest, there are no gross injustices to report. But with a finite number of opening slots divvied out among a deep pool of superstars, there were bound to be some imperfect selections.

    Was there controversy in the Western Conference backcourt? Did the Eastern Conference's own guard pairing shake out correctly? Were there any surprise frontcourt victories?

    Grades will be doled out with all of this in mind. Individual performances make up most of the scores, but the prospect of more deserving candidates will also weigh into the final marks.

East Backcourt: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors (B-)

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    Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    All-Star Selections: 3

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 47.5 percent shooting

    Hey there! It turns out per-game scoring remains sexy enough to command a starting All-Star spot.

    Aside from the poetic symmetry of seeing DeMar DeRozan grab his first-ever start the same year Kobe Bryant begins retirement, there's not much to love about him being tabbed for an opening slot.

    Admittedly, this has more to do with the Eastern Conference's vast amount of backcourt depth than DeRozan. Someone from the Kyle Lowry-Isaiah Thomas-Kemba Walker-John Wall clump was always going to get snubbed, and now there's a better chance two of them get the boot—an inexcusable scenario.

    If the coaches are prepared to stuff five point guards onto the East's docket, DeRozan won't look so out of place. His personal-best 28.2 points per game are coming on near-career efficiency from inside the arc, and he's among the league's most potent pick-and-roll ball-handlers.

    Porous defense and the complete absence of three-point range should probably work against him, but hey! Who cares? He's as good as you can get without shooting threes and locking down on defense!

    Kyle Lowry who? Kemba Whoseamawhatsit? Does John Wall even still play in the NBA?

    Seriously, congratulations to DeRozan. He's one helluva offensive player. But him getting the nod over Lowry, the best all-around guard in the East (and on his own team), is a joke.

East Backcourt: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers (B-)

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    Melissa Majchrzak/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    All-Star Selections: 4

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.1 blocks, 46.1 percent shooting

    Like we needed more evidence All-Star voting has no investment in defensive credentials...

    There were six real candidates to rep the East's starting backcourt: Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, Kemba Walker and John Wall.

    With DeRozan and Irving getting the nod, the two least deserving options snagged the honor.

    Let's be clear: Irving is a defense's worst nightmare. He is hot fire when spotting up and torches opposing players in one-on-one situations. That malleability has aided his career-high scoring clip while playing beside LeBron James. 

    But people are prone to getting Irving's role twisted. They unfairly measure him against the Association's other elite point guards, when he's really a combo guard this side of James' return. And yet, he assists on 29.3 percent of the Cleveland Cavaliers' buckets when on the floor—a rate right in line with those from Damian Lillard, Lowry and Walker.

    But even if the All-Star game isn't about defense, the goal should be to reward the most elite talent. And Irving, while incredible at what he does best (scoring), falls short as a facilitator and defender when pitted against his foremost peers.

    At least one of these two starting joints should have gone to Lowry, the best guard in the East. Irving, like DeRozan before him, must be graded accordingly—a worthy All-Star reserve masquerading as a starter.

East Frontcourt: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (A+)

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Age: 22

    All-Star Selections: 1 

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 2.1 blocks, 53.8 percent shooting

    Remember when the absence of a definable position detracted from a player's value?

    Giannis Antetokounmpo doesn't, either.

    The Milwaukee Bucks wunderkind has entered ineffable beast mode and quashed the mad dash to characterize him. Most of his minutes have come at shooting guard, but he functions like a point guard who defends forwards and absorbs certain center responsibilities.

    Antetokounmpo's per-game line is something we've never seen before. He leads the Bucks in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He has contested more shots at the rim than LaMarcus Aldridge but averages more passes per game than Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving.

    This malleability isn't even what's most impressive about Antetokounmpo's crusade, as Deadspin's Patrick Redford wrote:

    "The line on Antetokounmpo has always been that he had the chance to become a dominant player if he developed a jump shot. What is most startling about his rise from oversized athlete with potential to possible all-star starter is that he did so without really developing a jumper. Giannis is shooting a career-best 53.5 percent from the field, but he still takes a majority of his shots at the rim. When your arms are as long as Antetokounmpo’s are, that makes for easy buckets."

    No one in the NBA has made more shots in the restricted area than Antetokounmpo. And it seems like only a matter of time before he's a viable marksman. After all, he has mastered just about everything else.

    Plus, he's shooting 33.3 percent from distance over his last 25 games—a not-so-great-but-good-enough number that should terrify the Association's defenses.

East Frontcourt: Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls (A+)

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    All-Star Selections: 3

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 24.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.3 blocks, 45.2 percent shooting

    Please do not think about where the Chicago Bulls would be without career-year Jimmy Butler. No one deserves to inflict that kind of pain upon themselves.

    Butler has added 190.1 points more to the Bulls' cause than any of his running mates, according to NBA Math. The only players to put that much distance between themselves and their team's second-best player: LeBron James (164.8), Giannis Antetokounmpo (226.0), James Harden (259.6) and Russell Westbrook (404.9(!!!!!)).

    It's nothing short of a small miracle that Butler has remained this dominant in light of Chicago's up-and-down season. That holds doubly true for his performance down the stretch of close games.

    "In clutch situationsdefined by NBA.com as the last five minutes of games separated by no more than five pointsButler is averaging 41.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per 36 minutes while shooting 42.1 percent from the field and 97.6 percent at the stripe," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote.

    "While assuming a staggering 40.7 usage rate—think of Russell Westbrook's level of responsibility—he's helped the Bulls by producing a 14.3 net rating."

    Chicago is 12-9 when Butler plays during these crunch-time situations—a big reason why its overall record is even close to .500.

East Frontcourt: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (A+)

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Age: 32

    All-Star Selections: 13

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 8.1 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, 51.2 percent shooting

    LeBron James will, apparently, be an A+ All-Star choice until the end of time—or until he decides February banana boat excursions are more important.

    In an NBA that strives to create new conversations and promote freshly arrived superstars, James' greatness tends to fall by the wayside. Winning four MVPs has almost hurt him, in the sense that the world at large is in this rush to crown a different king of hoops. 

    One look at James' on-court value relative to the other top-five candidates on Basketball-Reference's MVP tracker reminds us he should not be punished for perpetual dominance:

    PlayerTeam Net Rtg. WithTeam Net Rtg. Without Difference
    LeBron James8.1-7.615.7
    Russell Westbrook4.6-11.115.7
    Kevin Durant14.86.18.7
    James Harden7.83.44.4
    Kawhi Leonard8.411.3-2.9

    Holy Westbrook. And hot damn, the San Antonio Spurs' Leonard-less lineups are good.

    But look at James. He's propping up a three-star Cleveland Cavaliers squad that's contending for a championship the same way Westbrook lifts a one-star Oklahoma City Thunder outfit with little chance of making it out of the first round.

    Oh, and because James can reinvent himself at will, he's shooting 37.5 percent from three-point range. And anyone who watched him with the 2012-13 Miami Heat knows there's no slowing him down when his outside missiles land.

West Backcourt: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (A)

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Age: 28

    All-Star Selections: 4

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 24.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.5 percent shooting

    If you're looking for disparaging words on why the NBA's fans, players and media members messed up by selecting Stephen Curry over Russell Westbrook, you've come to the wrong place. 

    Should he have ultimately earned this nod over Westbrook? That much is debatable, which prevents him from getting an A+ but, at the same time, proves there truly was no wrong answer.

    Curry's dip in production from last season was inevitable. Playing beside Kevin Durant inherently reduces the freelancing that made him so great, and following up the best offensive season in league history with an identical encore always profiled as unlikely.

    But compare Curry's output this season to his first MVP march in 2014-15, and the numbers aren't that far off. And even now, with his sub-31 percent clip on pull-up threes, you can argue he's the Golden State Warriors' most important player:

    Warriors:Net Rtg. WithNet Rtg. WithoutDifference
    Klay Thompson 16.23.712.5
    Stephen Curry15.9 3.512.4
    Kevin Durant14.8 6.1 8.7
    Draymond Green15.17.0 8.1

    "I love that he took 20 shots," head coach Steve Kerr and Thompson both said after Golden State's Jan. 16 win over Cleveland, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss. "When he's aggressive, we go."

    That this is the case, with the Warriors built as they are, proves Curry belongs in New Orleans as a starter just as much as Harden does or Westbrook did.

West Backcourt: James Harden, Houston Rockets (A+)

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Age: 27

    All-Star Selections: 5

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 11.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks, 44.4 percent shooting

    What would a souped-up version of Steve Nash who chases his own shots and plays more defense look like? 

    James Harden is showing us.

    "People always ask, 'You traded for him; did you know he was this good?'" Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey told Bleacher Report's Howard Beck. "I'm like, 'F--k no!' I mean, we thought he was extremely good and better than other teams probably did."

    Russell Westbrook is the only player matching Harden's dynamism at the moment. The bearded wonder has abruptly and unexpectedly transformed into someone who can lead the league in scoring and assists, and his importance to the Rockets cannot be overstated.

    Houston has found ways to excel when he's off the floor—not survive, but actually thrivein large part thanks to Patrick Beverley's return. But Harden accounts for 57.2 points per game when factoring in his scoring and buckets generated off his assists—the highest mark in NBA history, per ESPN.com's Micah Adams

    Knowing Harden's absurd output is steering the Rockets toward the league's second- or third-best record, how could he not have won a starting All-Star job?

West Frontcourt: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans (A+)

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    Brian Babineau/Getty Images

    Age: 23

    All-Star Selections: 4

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.8 points, 12.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals, 2.4 blocks, 50.0 percent shooting

    All this talk about the emergences of Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Myles Turner frequently glosses over an important caveat: There's no guarantee any of them will ever be as good as Anthony Davis.

    Sure, but Davis is a five-year vet. Many of his burgeoning peers are younger and, therefore, have higher ceilings. 

    Except that Davis is only 23, barely a year older than everyone's favorite tweeter, Joel Embiid.

    OK, fine. But he's never anchored a first-rate defense. That's a red flag given his reputation. 

    The 2016-17 New Orleans Pelicans are seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions and defend like a top-three fortress with Davis in the game.

    Well, whatever. He's not a blistering three-point shooter. His offense is overrated.

    Actually, more than half of Davis' looks from deep are wide-open opportunities, and he's shooting 42.5 percent in those situations. His three-point threat level will rise even further if New Orleans ever gets more complementary floor-spacers, and he's added more points to his team's offensive cause than Embiid, Porzingis and Turner, according to NBA Math.

    So I guess we're supposed to think he's the NBA's best big or something? Better than even DeMarcus Cousins

    Yep, but only because it's true.

West Frontcourt: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (A+)

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    Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

    Age: 28

    All-Star Selections: 8

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 26.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.1 steals, 1.7 blocks, 54.4 percent shooting

    Wasn't playing for the Golden State Warriors, alongside three other All-NBA talents, supposed to curtail Kevin Durant's counting stats or something? 

    Durant:PTS/36FGA/36eFG%REB/36AST/36STL/36BLK/36
    2015-1628.319.357.38.25.01.01.2
    2016-1727.417.860.39.04.91.21.8

    Durant's transition to the Warriors hasn't been perfect, but it's mostly affected the others: Stephen Curry started the season slow—as in, human—by his own standards. Though the reigning MVP has picked up his play, the imbalance of employing alphas in excess isn't going away.

    "No matter what [head coach Steve] Kerr does, someone won't be getting the ball enough," ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote. "Since Golden State has emphasized Curry, KD's shot attempts and usage have suffered a slight dip."

    It's not like this shifting dynamic is cratering Durant's production. His output has remained roughly the same since Christmas, when Curry started going bonkers again.

    The only notable difference between Durant's final season in Oklahoma City and his inaugural flight with Golden State is that No. 35 doesn't need to dribble as much. And that version of Durant is, without question, an All-Star starter.

West Frontcourt: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (A+)

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    Age: 25

    All-Star Selections: 2

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 24.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.7 blocks, 48.8 percent shooting

    Kawhi Leonard is having one of the most special offensive seasons in NBA history.

    Correct: A two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year is redefining what we know about the relationship between volume and efficiency. As if the Spurs weren't ridiculous enough.

    Including this year, there have been 35 occasions when an NBA player cleared 24.0 points per game while posting an assist percentage of 18.0 and turnover rate of 10.0 or lower. Leonard now owns the highest true shooting percentage of that bunch (62.6)—an honor that, prior to this season, belonged to Michael Jordan.

    Morphing into one of the most dangerous offensive players ever has not taken away from Leonard's defensive prowess. To the contrary, as unpacked by CBS Sports' Matt Moore, opposing teams remove his assignment from their offense just to mitigate Leonard's impact on San Antonio's defense.

    “Kawhi is a first-team All-NBA player. He’s an All-Star,” Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said, per the San Antonio Express-News' Jeff McDonald. “That’s what he does. He plays both ends of the floor like nobody’s business.”

    Now feels like a good time to say we've reached peak Kawhi, but we must resist. 

    Because there's a better-than-good chance Leonard makes another leap next year.

     

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com and accurate leading into games on Jan. 19.