Predicting 2017-18 NBA All-Star Game Rosters
An offseason that further tipped the balance of power toward the Western Conference will shape the 2018 NBA All-Star rosters in ways that feel unfair.
Making the squad in the West already required competing with MVPs, surefire Hall of Famers and entrenched superstars. And now Paul George, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap have arrived to further obstruct the path to a spot.
Gordon Hayward went East, and he'll enjoy a smoother ride than the one he took to make his first appearance for the West last season.
We've got a long way to go before 2017-18 kicks off, not to mention a full six months until we actually see these guys suit up for the East and West. And injuries, as always, will be a huge factor in mucking up these predictions.
Still, as a speculative exercise and as a way to underscore the severe imbalance of power between conferences, it'll be good to look ahead at who'll populate the rosters for February's tilt in Los Angeles.
Western Conference Starting Backcourt
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
The two-time MVP and owner of the most West fan votes in two of the last three seasons figures to post another statistically brilliant first half for what should be the best team in the league. That's a mouthful, but it's not easy distilling Curry's case into a one-shot explanation.
There's a lot to cover.
Productive, popular and still smack in the middle of his prime, he isn't going to relinquish his starting spot anytime soon. Curry will be on the floor for the opening tip in 2018, giving him three straight All-Star starts.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
James Harden started over Westbrook last year, and he did everything possible to vindicate that selection. Now, with Chris Paul and some new wings aboard, the Houston Rockets figure to be even better than they were last year. That's all good news for Harden's bid to start again.
But with Russ taking MVP honors for the 2016-17 season and the Oklahoma City Thunder adding their own star in George, it feels like the time is right for Westbrook to get a crack at the first unit. He lost the fan-vote tiebreaker to Harden last year, but maybe that won't be the case after averaging a triple-double and capturing the league's attention for a full season.
Western Conference Frontcourt Starters
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Last year, Kevin Durant became the eighth player in league history to post a true shooting percentage of at least 65.0 while attempting over 1,000 shots. It was one of the greatest displays of volume and efficiency the NBA has ever seen, marred only by 20 games missed because of injury.
Expecting a repeat of something that historically significant is ridiculous.
Except...what if KD, more comfortable in his second season with the Warriors, actually gets even cleaner looks in the offense? And what if he converts them at a higher clip?
What if, as a unit, the Warriors develop even more chemistry, which leads to more dunks. More open threes. More high-percentage shots for everyone—Durant included?
What if Durant somehow improves on one of the best offensive seasons ever?
He might. He really might. And even if he doesn't, he's still starting the All-Star Game. That's a given.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
It seems unlikely that at age 25, Kawhi Leonard will suddenly stop being the best wing defender in the league.
And though we could see a slight downturn in his offensive numbers—not a knock, just an acknowledgement that sometimes there's a touch of regression after a season featuring a leap as big as the one Leonard made a year ago—he should also remain one of the best offensive hubs around.
As tough as it is to make the West's starting lineup, these first two frontcourt picks have been easy.
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Here's where it gets harder.
Picking Towns, a third-year center who has already produced obscene stats (25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 61.8 percent true shooting last year) but hasn't meaningfully contributed to a winner yet, feels bold. It is bold. Because it means taking him over Anthony Davis, Draymond Green and a litany of more established two-way contributors who've actually seen a playoff game.
There are a few things working in Towns' favor, though. The first, obviously, is his incredible talent.
There may not be a more multiply skilled big in the game. He shot 36.7 percent from deep last year while dicing up opponents in the post, on the catch and even on straight-line attacks. In his age-22 season, he's going to get better.
Beyond that, the Wolves have buzz, which should generate some voter support—particularly if the team gets off to a hot start and Towns clearly takes the next step in his development. If Davis loses some of his counting stats to DeMarcus Cousins and Green rests more after three straight trips to the Finals, there's a window for Towns to squeeze into.
Western Conference Reserves
Backcourt Reserve: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Just assume you can apply the following blanket consolation to every West player who doesn't earn a starting job (or a spot on the team at all). All you have to do is substitute that guy's name for Harden's, and everything that follows will still ring true.
Hey, James. Real sorry how this shook out, but don't let yourself get discouraged. You're awesome! You had a fantastic 2016-17 and will be similarly excellent this year. It's just that this doggone conference is so tough, we have to draw the line somewhere. This isn't really about you, so much as it's about the gross imbalance of talent in the West. Sorry, pal. Warmest regards!
Backcourt Reserve: Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
You'd have to think Paul's numbers will decline in whatever ball-sharing, minute-splitting agreement he enters into with Harden in Houston. No teammates in NBA history have ever averaged at least 10 assists, so something's got to give.
Paul is also entering his age-32 season, so a little slowdown is to be expected as well.
Bright side: Paul didn't even make the team last year. He'll rectify that.
Frontcourt Reserve: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
It's possible Davis has a hard time replicating his 2016-17 averages of 28.0 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks with Cousins around, but his production will still be good enough to earn a fifth consecutive All-Star nod.
And let's not rule out AD finally dialing in that three-point shot. If he becomes, say, a 35 percent shooter from deep, he'll turn into a whole new kind of weapon. Just thinking about it makes me nervous about picking Towns to start over him.
Frontcourt Reserve: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Green's game isn't All-Star-suited, but there's no way to keep the league's most versatile defender and ultimate glue guy off the squad. With a second title and his first Defensive Player of the Year Award in tow, the Warriors' heart and soul (and mouth) belongs on this roster as much as anyone.
And if voters of all stripes only made their picks on the basis of contributions to winning basketball, it'd be impossible to deny Green a starting spot.
Frontcourt Reserve: Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
Be advised: The Timberwolves will have two All-Stars. Two!
This has actually happened three times before. And because it's almost impossible to believe, we have to list the three previous Wolves who made the All-Star team with Kevin Garnett in 1996-97, 2001-02 and 2003-04.
Are you ready? Do you have your gaze slightly averted so as not to be blinded by the sheer star power?
Here goes: Tom Gugliotta, Wally Szczerbiak and Sam Cassell.
Butler, having finished third last year behind LeBron James and Curry in wins added, according to ESPN's RPM, doesn't quite belong with that group. So I guess that'll make him the first great second All-Star in Wolves history.
And yes, this is a bet on Minnesota winning a lot of games and forcing voters to give it two roster spots.
Wild Card: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Eventually, everybody's going to catch on to Gobert's dominance. His contributions to winning basketball. His flat-out elite defense.
For now, this is unfortunately a hopeful prediction. Gobert was second in the league in win shares last year while averaging 14.0 points, 12.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks with 66.1 percent shooting from the field. It wasn't good enough to convince voters he belonged on the roster, which is lame.
He should get there this season as he assumes a bigger offensive load without Hayward around. This is a wager, with hopes high, that "should" turns into "will."
Wild Card: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
The best player on what might be the league's best offense has to get recognized eventually, right?
Jokic is beating out a ton of talented and deserving candidates to snag this final spot, as you'll see in the snubs section. The reason he does it is pretty simple: Last year, he posted one of the best age-21 seasons in NBA history. At the same age, only LeBron James and Magic Johnson posted a higher box plus-minus than Jokic's plus-8.4.
No metric is a catch-all, but it's worth noting something this significant. Remember when Anthony Davis caught all that preseason MVP buzz after his brilliant 2014-15 campaign? Jokic, by this statistic, was better last season. And while we'll never see any MVP chatter for Jokic, the least we can do is predict an All-Star berth in his third season.
Eastern Conference Backcourt Starters
John Wall, Washington Wizards
Wall is coming off a career year that included personal bests in scoring, assists, true shooting percentage and box plus-minus. This is a hunch that voters will come around a year late and acknowledge him as a worthy starter in 2018.
Of course, if Wall duplicates or improves on last year's numbers, it won't take a retroactive appreciation of his previous season to get the job done.
His Wizards didn't do much offseason tweaking to a team that won 49 games last year, which means success could depend on similar injury luck. One positive, though, should be further improved chemistry among the returning starters. No fivesome played more than Washington's first unit last year. For Wall, who thrives on court vision and anticipation, the return of such well-known commodities could mean even better offensive flow.
Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland Cavaliers
Thomas got the start last year by ranking first in the media vote and second in the players' (among guards in the East), and there's little reason to think that'll change now that he's a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The same will not be true for Kyrie Irving, which we'll get to later.
The hip injury that shelved Thomas in the playoffs is a concern. He opted not to have surgery, and lingering issues could sap some of the quickness that made him such a breathtaking scorer. Counterpoint: He's in a contract year and should be especially motivated.
Also, he plays with LeBron James now. That tends to help players look good.
Eastern Conference Frontcourt Starters
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
James' counting numbers must decline this season—not because he's losing his grip on league primacy, but because he simply cannot play as many minutes as he did a year ago. He led the league with an average of 37.8 per game, which is full-on coaching malpractice (if we assume Tyronn Lue had any say in James' substitution patterns, which he may not have).
Somehow, James' rate stats improved under last year's heavy load. He managed to bump up his true shooting, rebound and assist rates, despite logging unconscionable minute totals.
He's the best player in the world, one whose durability stands out as perhaps the greatest of his many basketball gifts.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Starting the All-Star Game is small potatoes for Antetokounmpo, whose MVP case has gone from hot take to practical foregone conclusion in the aftermath of his breakout 2016-17 season.
"I might be the MVP this year," he told Bucks TV three weeks ago.
Kevin Durant blessed the Greek Freak with a similar prediction after Antetokounmpo ran away with last year's Most Improved Player award, saying on his YouTube channel: "Congrats on MIP, this dude is a specimen that we've never seen before and it's guaranteed that he will be an MVP one day!"
Nobody's star is rising like Antetokounmpo's, a player many agree could run the league soon.
So yeah, he's going to start the All-Star Game again.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Everybody's ready for a full season of Embiid, and if he produces another 31-game pre-break sample like last year's, he's going to wind up starting in his first All-Star appearance.
Part of that has to do with Butler's departure from the East. He finished third in voting last year among frontcourt players, with Kevin Love and Embiid tied for fourth. Remove Butler, and Embiid is basically in. Beyond that, though, there's the mounting buzz around Embiid and his team.
The Sixers have legitimate playoff expectations, and if Embiid tears up opponents to the tune of 28.7 points, 11.1 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per 36 minutes again, voters won't be able to ignore him. Big numbers are one thing, but big numbers on a winning team are another.
As always, health is the concern. Embiid didn't play a second after the break last year, and he isn't fully up to game speed yet. He told Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated he expects to be ready for training camp, though.
Eastern Conference Reserves
Backcourt Reserve: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
If Lowry is healthy and performs anywhere near the level he reached before the break last year, he should be the starter. But at 31 and coming off a season that involved surgery on his shooting wrist, he isn't a great bet for sustained performance.
Still, Lowry remains criminally underappreciated. Last year, he became just the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 22 points and seven assists while posting a true shooting percentage of at least 62. The other four: James, Curry, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain.
Backcourt Reserve: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
If Irving had wound up in the West, he probably would have been a snub this season. But he lands in Boston, where he should get loads of votes and step ably into the role Thomas played there a year ago.
Though he started last season, we're downgrading him a bit because of all we know about his career without LeBron James, which is to say he's been a producer of empty stats on underperforming squads sans the King. He's better than the guy who led Cleveland to lottery berths before James arrived, but the Cavs got smoked last year whenever Irving was on the floor without LeBron.
Irving is a brilliant scorer, and he's still in a good situation with the Celtics. But let's not be so quick to assume he'll suddenly be a winning player outside of Cleveland. He makes it, but he shouldn't start.
Frontcourt Reserve: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Love was an All-Star for the first time in his Cavaliers tenure last year, and several factors point to him backing up that honor with another one.
As we've covered, the East has lost talent up front. Butler and George's exits clear the runway for Love to make the roster.
The trade for Thomas could allow Love to operate more as a playmaker, if only because Thomas moves the ball a bit more than Irving did. We know he can be an offensive fulcrum from his Minnesota days, and Love could potentially double his 2016-17 assist average of 1.9 per game if Thomas keeps the rock moving. Toss in the chance he adds just a point to his scoring average from last year, and you've got a 20-10 forward with nice assist totals on a very good team.
That's an All-Star.
Frontcourt Reserve: Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
No Derrick Rose means a bigger role for Porzingis, who improved his scoring efficiency last year but actually saw his usage rate decline. Nothing says "Knicks" like the marginalization of a franchise cornerstone at the expense of a big-name veteran rental.
Whatever happens with Carmelo Anthony, Porzingis is in for more responsibility this year—if only because the point guard will theoretically pass him the ball once in a while. At the least, he's going to crack 20 points per game on solid efficiency. And if he continues to develop as a ball-handler and rim-protector, he'll easily deserve his first All-Star trip.
Frontcourt Reserve: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers are going to be bad. Actually, make that "capital-B" Bad.
But Myles Turner, suddenly the alpha without George around, is going to be good.
Last year, Turner became the fifth player since 1946-47 to average at least 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in his age-20 season. The other four players—Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett, Anthony Davis and Chris Webber—combined to make eight threes. Turner hit 40 on his own.
He has a massive opportunity this year—one his production to date suggests he's ready to exploit.
Wild Card: Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
Welcome to the East, Gordon, where all your All-Star dreams come true!
Hayward managed to make his first appearance for the West last season, which means he's certainly fit to represent his new conference. Now sure to do big numbers in the fan vote as a marquee player on a higher-profile team, Hayward is actually a sneaky pick to start if Embiid gets hurt and Hayward comes close to the totals of 21.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists he averaged in 2016-17.
Wild Card: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Beal took a leap last year, bettering his previous career-high scoring average by nearly six points per game while cranking his true shooting percentage all the way up to 60.4 percent. It was a rare dual jump in volume and efficiency.
At 24, he's likely just beginning his prime, which means even bigger things could be ahead—especially if Beal keeps developing as a playmaker and defender. And he's already a lot better at the former than he gets credit for.
Here's what head coach Scott Brooks had to say on The Vertical podcast with Chris Mannix after Beal pumped out 3.5 assists per game last year (h/t Bullets Forever): "I knew he was a good player. I knew he had a lot of good offensive skill. But I didn’t really know if he could facilitate as a playmaking, ball-handling 2-guard. As the season went on, I thought we did a better job of really utilizing some of the things that he can do."
DeMar DeRozan has made three of the last four All-Star teams in the East, but Beal, four years younger and more efficient, gets his spot this time.
Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
This is a tough one for George, who was an All-Star during each of his last four healthy seasons in the East. You could make the case he warrants consideration over Jokic, but that's about it. And without knowing how he'll perform as Westbrook's wingman, it's too hard to predict George will be good enough to clearly deserve a spot.
Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Injury concerns, waning athleticism and the chances of L.A. being a fringe playoff team hurt Griffin's odds—even if it's possible his larger role produces a healthy number of triple-doubles.
DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans are going to struggle to be a playoff squad, and we've already docked Davis for what we expect will be some stat splitting with his fellow big man. Plus, the move from Sacramento to New Orleans doesn't exactly point to an uptick in fan voting.
Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Thompson is the archetypal three-and-D wing, and he is an All-Star. But he's not going to be an All-Star, which is unfair and indicative of the West's stacked talent. There's just no room.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
The Charlotte Hornets will be significantly better this year, which isn't all that outlandish to say considering this core won 48 games two years ago—without Dwight Howard.
Walker figures to get (and deserve) the most credit for Charlotte's resurgence.
At 26, his scoring, assist and three-point shooting numbers are all on three-year upward trends. Unfortunately, he's still not going to get a spot ahead of Thomas, Irving, Lowry, Wall or Beal.
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
DeRozan has become one of the best high-volume, moderate-efficiency scorers in the league, and he made his third All-Star appearance in four years last season. His presence among the snubs hinges on his low-efficiency shot profile eventually hurting him, causing his numbers to dip.
With recent playoff collapses and a poor defensive reputation coloring voters' perspectives, this feels like the year everyone agrees DeRozan sits a notch below the East's best backcourt players.
Al Horford, Boston Celtics
Horford's field-goal percentage is on a four-year downward trend, and he's a poor rebounder for a big man. The facilitation is nice (five assists per game last year), but with two Celtics already making the roster, the 31-year-old will miss the All-Star Game for the second year in a row.
Goran Dragic/Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
It hurts to finish this out with no Heat players on the roster, but we've officially run out of spots and scanned over several snubs before getting to Dragic and Whiteside. Both will be productive, both will be key reasons the Heat make it back to the playoffs, and both will have legitimate gripes about not making the team.