Every NBA Team's Ideal 2015 All-Star Weekend Competitor
Give the NBA credit: The 2015 All-Star weekend is shaping up to be a doozy.
The entire weekend of festivities—from Friday's Rising Stars Challenge and Saturday's Skills Competition, Three-Point Contest and Slam Dunk Contest to Sunday's All-Star Game—is packed with star-studded talent.
It could be even better, though, with a few alternate participants.
When choosing the ideal All-Star weekend competitors, two main criteria come to mind: Which players would bring the most unique skill set to the festivities? Which are having statistically dominant or historically unique seasons? Combining those two factors alone helps surface the NBA's best of the best.
And in the spirit of Major League Baseball, it's easy enough to carve out room for a player from every team in at least one of the competitions. Even if your favorite franchise is so terrible this year that it's being booted off national TV games left and right—here's looking at you, New York Knicks—at least one of your players is deserving of an All-Star weekend nod in some capacity.
Atlanta Hawks: Kyle Korver
The Eastern Conference-leading Atlanta Hawks have no shortage of deserving All-Star weekend candidates this season, to say the least.
Center Al Horford, forward Paul Millsap and point guard Jeff Teague each received reserve bids to the All-Star Game, while shooting guard Kyle Korver wound up on many "Biggest Snubs" lists after failing to secure a selection from the coaches. With four-fifths of their starting lineup worthy of a bid to the big game, choosing the Hawks' ideal representative boils down to a matter of preference.
Though Horford, Millsap and Teague are all wholly deserving of their All-Star Game bids, Korver is Atlanta's clear choice for an ideal All-Star weekend competitor. He's the only one of the four capable of spicing up multiple competitions throughout the course of the weekend, thanks to his prolific three-point shooting.
The Creighton product is threatening to join Steve Kerr as just the second qualified player in NBA history to shoot above 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the charity stripe. Assuming he keeps drilling triples at his current rate, he'd also smash the record for best three-point shooting percentage among players who attempted at least five treys per game.
Korver will hit the court Saturday night for the Three-Point Contest, according to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, so NBA fans won't be completely deprived of his long-range bombing all weekend. However, it'll be a shame not seeing him fire 30-foot heaves to match wits with Stephen Curry during the All-Star Game.
Boston Celtics: Marcus Smart
Once the Boston Celtics traded away point guard Rajon Rondo in mid-December, their best hope for an All-Star weekend participant rested in the hands of their young players. Lo and behold, sophomore big man Kelly Olynyk earned his second straight bid to Friday's Rising Stars Challenge.
In last year's Rising Stars Challenge, Olynyk racked up nine points on 4-of-4 shooting, three steals, two assists, a rebound, a block and a triple in a little more than 25 minutes of playing time. This season, however, a badly sprained right ankle is likely to sideline him for the festivities, according to MassLive.com's Jay King, which will presumably leave Boston without any representation during All-Star Weekend.
Even without Olynyk, the Celtics deserved to have another member present in the Rising Stars Challenge: rookie point guard Marcus Smart. Among the 19 rookies who have played at least 500 minutes this season, Smart ranks ninth in player efficiency rating (11.5), according to Basketball-Reference, higher than Minnesota's Zach LaVine (9.7) and Utah's Dante Exum (6.9), both of whom were selected for the game.
Smart will get "strong consideration" as an injury replacement, via CSNNE.com's A. Sherrod Blakely, but it shouldn't have come to that point. Head coach Brad Stevens said as much to reporters, responding "yes" when asked if Smart was snubbed.
Though Smart hasn't quite lit the NBA on fire during the first half of his rookie season, he's beginning to show the makings of a potential franchise point guard. Accordingly, he deserves a chance to strut his stuff during the Rising Stars Challenge, which would mark the 14th straight season in which at least one Celtic took part in All-Star weekend festivities, via Zack Cox of NESN.com.
Brooklyn Nets: Mason Plumlee
With the Brooklyn Nets having entered full tire-fire mode, the team doesn't have a single player worthy of participating in the actual All-Star Game this year. Luckily, Mason Plumlee will pick up the slack for Brooklyn's underachieving veterans elsewhere.
The second-year Duke product will take part in two All-Star weekend festivities: Friday night's Rising Stars Challenge and Saturday's Slam Dunk Contest. His appearance in the Rising Stars Challenge will be his second straight, as he put up 20 points on 10-of-13 shooting, seven rebounds, four steals, one block and one assist in just under 19 minutes during the 2014 version.
Plumlee's presence in the dunk contest, meanwhile, comes as somewhat of a surprise. He's not a very flashy in-game dunker, rarely busting out anything more than a reverse flush, which seemingly puts him at a disadvantage compared to the other three participants—Milwaukee forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, Orlando guard Victor Oladipo and Minnesota point guard Zach LaVine.
Don't go ruling out Plumlee as a non-contender in the dunk contest, though. As CBS Sports' Sam Vecenie noted on Twitter, the Brooklyn big man finished second in the 2009 McDonald's All-American Dunk Contest, where he busted out a tribute to Vince Carter's "Elbow Dunk." He also claims to be the originator of the three-ball dunk, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, which then-Washington Wizards big man JaVale McGee later did at the 2011 dunk contest.
Any big man capable of spicing up the dunk contest—a la Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard and McGee over recent years—is a worthy participant. Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez have each earned nods to the big game in past years, but Plumlee is the clear choice to represent Brooklyn in this year's All-Star weekend festivities.
Charlotte Hornets: Kemba Walker
Barring a surprise entrant in the Skills Competition, the Charlotte Hornets' lone representative during All-Star weekend will be sophomore center Cody Zeller, who is participating in the Rising Stars Challenge. For a team that started off 6-19, the limited representation is wholly justified.
Is Zeller the ideal candidate to represent Charlotte during All-Star weekend, however? Hardly.
In a perfect world, point guard Kemba Walker wouldn't have torn his meniscus in late January, freeing him up to participate in some of the weekend's festivities. Though he didn't deserve a bid to the All-Star Game—he's shooting just 39.9 percent on the year—the way he kept Charlotte afloat during Al Jefferson's injury-related absence was All-Star-caliber.
He's not a great three-point shooter—he's hitting just 32.0 percent of his treys this season—and wouldn't improve the dunk-contest field, but he could have strutted his stuff during Saturday's Skills Competition. One only needs to think back to his heroic run through the 2011 NCAA tournament to understand why his homicidal competitiveness would have improved All-Star weekend in some capacity.
Unfortunately, Walker did tear his meniscus, leaving Zeller as Charlotte's one deserving All-Star weekend representative. Damn you, injury gods.
Chicago Bulls: Jimmy Butler
Choosing the Chicago Bulls' most deserving All-Star is no simple task. You're forced to decide between a former Most Valuable Player, the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year, a 34-year-old in the midst of a late-career renaissance and the front-runner for this year's Most Improved Player award.
Dive into the statistics, though, and the choice becomes clear.
Gasol leads the team in PER, but Butler has Chicago's best marks in win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus and value over replacement player, along with the third-highest true shooting percentage. He's obliterating his previous career-high averages in points (20.5), rebounds (6.0) and assists (3.2) while shooting a personal-best 49.7 percent from two-point range and 83.2 percent on free throws.
Aesthetically, there's also no contest between Butler and the other three former Bulls All-Stars. Despite head coach Tom Thibodeau's best attempts to run his stud swingman into the ground, Butler is athletic enough to be on the receiving end of half-court alley-oops, the perfect embodiment of what All-Star Games are all about.
Fans named Gasol one of the Eastern Conference's three frontcourt starters for the All-Star Game, while NBA coaches tabbed Butler with one of the reserve bids. While Gasol's resurgence deserves significant praise after his lost years with the Los Angeles Lakers, Butler is the Bulls' clear choice for an ideal All-Star weekend competitor.
Cleveland Cavaliers: LeBron James
Is there any question which Cleveland Cavalier most deserves to participate in All-Star weekend?
Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving each have multiple All-Star bids to their name—Irving added another this year, too—but there's only one LeBron James. Considering the Cavs' 2-8 record in games where James did not play, there's no denying the four-time MVP's claim to being Cleveland's ideal All-Star representative.
James doesn't just lead all Cavaliers in PER, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus and value over replacement player; he's miles ahead of the next-closest teammate in each of those four categories. During what's considered a "down" year for LeBron, he's still averaging 26.2 points, 7.4 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per games, marks which only two other players in NBA history have achieved.
Irving's flashy style of play certainly belongs in the All-Star Game—after all, he did win the All-Star Game MVP award last season—but James' all-around skill set makes him the best fit. How many players are just as likely to be on the dishing end of a half-court alley-oop as the receiving end?
Though he won't have Kobe Bryant there to antagonize him in the game's waning seconds, unlike the 2012 iteration, the All-Star Game simply wouldn't be the same without James. He'll be good for at least a handful of how-did-he-do-that assists and a rim-rattling dunk or two, too.
Dallas Mavericks: Monta Ellis
The Dallas Mavericks figure to be without any representation at All-Star weekend and not just because outspoken owner Mark Cuban slammed the voting system. Though the Mavs are 16 games over .500, they owe their success this season to a collective effort rather than a superstar-driven one.
To wit: Dallas doesn't have a single player ranked among the top 20 in PER, and Monta Ellis, the team's scoring leader, is tied for 16th in points per game among qualified players. The latter isn't an accident; in fact, Cuban predicted such an outcome during the preseason, telling reporters, via Eddie Sefko of the Dallas Morning News:
I'm not expecting anybody on our team to be a 20-point scorer. Not Dirk [Nowitzki]. I don't want him to be a 20-point scorer. Seriously. Monta has that capability. [Tyson] Chandler has that capability. Dirk has that capability. Richard Jefferson's got that capability. Jameer [Nelson could score] 15. Raymond [Felton] could do 15, if that was the focus, but that's not our focus.
Thus, choosing an All-Star weekend competitor from this squad largely boils down to personal preference. While Tyson Chandler leads the team in win shares, value over replacement player and box plus/minus, his defensive-minded style of play wouldn't be a fit in an All-Star Game where defense often takes a back seat.
With 12 All-Star appearances under his belt, Dirk Nowitzki would be the easy choice—who wouldn't love to see that one-legged fadeaway during Saturday's Shooting Stars contest? But Ellis is Dallas' ideal candidate. The All-Star Game is the one time a year where players can abandon their conscience in terms of shot selection, which wouldn't be much of a stretch for the man known as "Monta Have It All."
Denver Nuggets: Kenneth Faried
By the time All-Star weekend rolls around, there's no telling which players will still be with the Denver Nuggets. They've already shipped out center Timofey Mozgov and point guard Nate Robinson in separate trades, and fellow big men JaVale McGee and J.J. Hickson could soon be on the way out, too, according to ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
Thus, choosing an All-Star weekend competitor for Denver boils down to three candidates: point guard Ty Lawson, forward Kenneth Faried and rookie center Jusuf Nurkic. The former two are tops on the team in PER, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus and value over replacement player, respectively, while the latter broke out after Denver traded Mozgov to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Since Nurkic was a relative non-factor in the first two months of his career, averaging just 5.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 12.2 minutes per game through Dec. 31, it's hard to fault the NBA for leaving him off the Rising Stars Challenge's World Team. The other big men on the team—Oklahoma City's Steven Adams, Utah's Rudy Gobert, Boston's Kelly Olynyk and Minnesota's Gorgui Dieng—are all more deserving given their pre-January impact.
That leaves the decision between Lawson, who leads the Nuggets in a host of statistical categories, and Faried, whose violent style of play lends itself well to All-Star weekend. One only needs to think back to the 2013 Rising Stars Challenge, in which Faried racked up 40 points on 18-of-22 shooting and 10 rebounds in 22 minutes, to understand the type of impact he's capable of making on such a stage.
Given the insane depth of deserving All-Star point guards out West—Portland's Damian Lillard and Memphis' Mike Conley would like a word, please—Faried effectively wins Denver's ideal All-Star honor by default. The Manimal wouldn't give up a single rebound without a fight, infusing a hint of competitiveness in an otherwise defense-optional weekend.
Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond
Since "Not Josh Smith" isn't eligible for All-Star weekend, the Detroit Pistons have just four players worthy of a bid to the festivities: sixth-year point guard Brandon Jennings, sophomore shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, fourth-year big man Greg Monroe and third-year center Andre Drummond.
Monroe, Drummond and Jennings rank first, second and third on the team, respectively, in both PER and win shares, underlying how crucial each has been to Detroit's success this season. Unfortunately, Jennings wouldn't be able to participate in All-Star weekend even if selected, as he tore his Achilles tendon in late January and is out for the rest of the season.
Caldwell-Pope received a spot on the Rising Stars Challenge's U.S. Team, but there's no way to dub someone as a squad's most deserving All-Star Weekend participant with a below-average PER of 10.0. He's averaging a perfectly respectable 12.0 points per game—a vast improvement over the 5.9 he got as a rookie—but he's shooting just 39.3 percent from the field, hardly All-Star-caliber numbers.
Thus, due to Jennings' injury, it boils down to a choice between Monroe and Drummond. Similar to Denver's Ty Lawson-Kenneth Faried debate, Monroe owns the statistical advantage over his frontcourt counterpart, but Drummond would be the more entertaining, unique addition to All-Star weekend.
Just last year, Drummond racked up 30 points and a record 25 rebounds—including a whopping 14 offensive boards—in the Rising Stars Challenge, earning MVP honors. Inserting a rebounding machine like the UConn product into the festivities would only improve the product...so long as he doesn't have to take any trips to the free-throw line.
Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry
On one side, you have one of the leading candidates for league MVP. On the other, you have a player who recently shattered an NBA record by exploding for 37 points in a single quarter, punctuating his breakout year with fervor.
How do you decide which Splash Brother—Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson—is the ideal All-Star weekend representative for the Golden State Warriors? Luckily, in real life, we won't have to make that choice—both are participating in the three-point contest, via Yahoo Sports' Wojnarowski, and in the All-Star Game itself.
In Curry, you have a guy who openly admits he's "salty" about not having won the three-point contest yet—this will be his fourth appearance—via Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. He's a guy capable of hitting 23 three-pointers in a row at practice, then getting mad at himself for missing No. 24, as Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard relayed.
Thompson, meanwhile, has elevated himself this season to "a co-star, not just a supporting actor," as ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss wrote following his 52-point eruption against the Sacramento Kings. He's the only player to rank among the top five in both three-point attempts per game (7.0) and three-point shooting percentage (.448), speaking to just how lethal he's become from deep.
Though Thompson holds the edge over his fellow Splash Brother in long-range efficiency, Curry obliterates all other Warriors in value over replacement player, box plus/minus and win shares. Because of that—and because there's no sight more terrifying in the NBA than Curry pulling up for an open 25-footer—he barely edges Thompson as Golden State's ideal All-Star weekend candidate.
Houston Rockets: James Harden
Choosing the Houston Rockets' ideal competitor shouldn't take anyone more than 0.2 seconds. James Harden should be first, second and third on everyone's ballot, with no one else even listed as an honorable mention.
Given the season he's having, it's criminal that fans didn't vote Harden as an All-Star Game starter for the Western Conference squad, as Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta explained in great detail. The Bearded One is averaging a league-high 27.0 points, 6.8 assists, 5.6 rebounds, 2.6 treys and 2.0 steals in 36.4 minutes a night, often singlehandedly putting the Rockets on his back for long stretches.
As Scaletta noted, only three other players in NBA history—Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Larry Bird—have averaged at least 26 points, six assists and five rebounds per game while maintaining a true shooting percentage above .600. Houston has outscored opponents by 235 points with Harden on the court this season, via NBA.com, by far the highest mark of any player on the team.
He's the only Rocket with a PER above 20, has more than twice as many win shares as any of his teammates and is more than tripling up all other Houston players in terms of box plus/minus and value over replacement player. The Rockets currently own a 97.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to ESPN.com's Hollinger Playoff Odds, which is largely thanks to the Arizona State product.
Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who's coaching the West's All-Star squad, could wind up opting to start Klay Thompson over Harden as Kobe Bryant's injury replacement. Harden not only deserves the starting nod, however; he deserves to be recognized as the league's top 2-guard.
Indiana Pacers: Paul George
There aren't many teams undeserving of a single representative. Unfortunately, thanks to Paul George's untimely leg injury with Team USA this past summer, the Indiana Pacers are one such squad.
Of the 12 Pacers who have played at least 500 minutes this season, only four have an above-average PER, led by forward David West's 16.6. Backup forward Lavoy Allen—whom the Philadelphia 76ers dumped onto Indiana at the trade deadline last February—leads the team in win shares, while not a single Pacer has a value over replacement player above 1.5.
Unlike many of their rebuilding counterparts, the Pacers also lack any young players worthy of a spot in the Rising Stars Challenge. Rookie forward Damjan Rudez and sophomore forward Solomon Hill are the only two Indiana players eligible for the competition, and both have a PER below 10.
Center Roy Hibbert has two All-Star appearances under his belt, but a defensive-minded big man from a team that's 15 games under .500 has no place in an All-Star Game unless he's putting up historic numbers. Unless the NBA introduces a new competition in which players must convert looks in the paint over the 7-footer's outstretched arms, it's hard to justify Hibbert's All-Star weekend candidacy.
Given the complete dearth of worthy players on the roster, George is the only player worthy of representing Indiana, broken leg be damned. Even having him show up at Saturday night's events and cheering on from the front row—he was, after all, on the winning dunk-contest squad last year—would be better than forcing another Pacer into the All-Star festivities.
Los Angeles Clippers: Blake Griffin
Since defensive-minded big men aren't typically All-Star weekend material—sorry, DeAndre Jordan—the Los Angeles Clippers' choice for ideal representation boils down to power forward Blake Griffin and point guard Chris Paul.
In real life, we won't have to choose just one, as fans voted Griffin in as one of the Western Conference's All-Star Game starters, while NBA coaches tabbed CP3 as a West reserve. For at least one night, Lob City will make a cross-country trip and take up residency in Madison Square Garden.
If we did have to decide between the two, however, who would be more worthy? Paul leads the Clippers in terms of PER, win shares per 48 minutes, box/plus minus and value over replacement player, but Griffin has a long history of throwing down rim-rattling dunks during All-Star weekend, turning the defense-lite affair into a must-watch spectacle.
In last year's All-Star Game, Griffin stuffed home eight jams in the first quarter alone, ranging from a one-handed windmill slam to a few thunderous alley-oops. He finished with 38 points on 19-of-23 shooting, and if not for some late-game heroics from Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, the Oklahoma product could have walked out with the All-Star MVP award.
Statistically, Paul is the Clippers' most deserving All-Star this year, but Griffin takes the cake aesthetically. Since the West squad isn't lacking for crafty passers with Curry, Russell Westbrook and James Harden on board, Griffin slightly edges his smaller teammate in the hopes of an encore performance that tops last year's.
Los Angeles Lakers: Nick Young
Despite his brutal shooting efficiency, Kobe Bryant would have been the Los Angeles Lakers' clear choice for an ideal representative, if not for his torn rotator cuff. After all, the entire weekend revolves around bringing together the NBA's biggest and brightest stars, and over the past decade, there haven't been many bigger or brighter than Kobe.
Unfortunately, Bryant's shoulder injury will force him to miss the festivities, despite fans having voted him in (undeservedly) as a Western Conference starter. In Kobe's absence, there's only one correct choice as the ideal Laker to replace him, and he goes by the name of "Swaggy P."
If you don't think Nick Young would brighten up the weekend's outlook significantly, you haven't been paying attention to the Lakers this season. Even amidst their train wreck, the Swag Prince of Bel Air has managed to breathe some levity into the Staples Center, smiling and gunning his way into L.A. fans' hearts.
Though it's difficult to imagine Swaggy P forcing his way into the All-Star Game itself, he has the three-point contest written all over him. Of the 28 players who attempt at least five triples per game, Young ranks ninth in terms of shooting percentage (.390), not even a full percentage point behind Stephen Curry (.395).
Bleacher Report's Sean Highkin recently tweeted Young "would own [All-Star] weekend's festivities," and it's difficult to take umbrage with that stance. Who better to add to a collection of the league's biggest stars than the player who fancies himself ahead of all of them?
Memphis Grizzlies: Marc Gasol
Heading into the season, Gasol was best known as the defensive fulcrum for the Grit 'N' Grind Memphis Grizzlies, having won the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award for his efforts manning the middle. This year, however, the Spanish big man has unveiled a more well-rounded offensive attack to complement his strong defense, emerging as one of the league's top two-way centers.
Gasol is smashing his career-high scoring average with 18.6 points per game, and he's chipping in 8.2 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.7 blocks and 0.9 steals. He's one of just two players this season averaging at least 18 points, eight boards, three dimes and 1.5 blocks—Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins being the other—and has nearly doubled Cousins in terms of win shares.
Gasol leads all Grizzlies in terms of PER, win shares, box plus/minus, and value over replacement player, and, perhaps most impressively, he also leads the team in usage percentage. His evolution into an offensive dynamo has transformed Memphis from "frisky playoff team no opponent wants to draw in the first round" into a legitimate championship contender.
Gasol might not provide many SportsCenter Top 10 highlights during his All-Star Game stints, but he's deserving of his spot given the season he's having. Having his big brother Pau starting opposite him for the Eastern Conference All-Star squad should make for quite an eventful tip-off to Sunday's big game.
Miami Heat: Hassan Whiteside
During All-Star weekend, can we all agree to pretend Hassan Whiteside is a rookie?
The Sacramento Kings drafted the Marshall University product 33rd overall back in 2010, but he bounced around the league and overseas until finally catching hold with the Miami Heat this winter. Given his scorching play of late, 29 other general managers are now kicking themselves for letting him get away.
The shot-swatting menace burst onto the national scene with a mammoth 14-point, 13-rebound, 12-block game against the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 25, becoming the first player in NBA history to record those totals in 25 minutes or fewer. He's averaging a preposterous 4.7 swats per 36 minutes on the season, by far the highest mark in the league.
Unfortunately, Whiteside won't be eligible for any All-Star weekend activities aside from the big game itself, and one month of exemplary play doesn't justify him nudging out a more deserving candidate. But who wouldn't want to see him and Rudy Gobert match shot-blocking wits in Friday's Rising Stars Challenge?
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh deservedly received bids to the All-Star Game itself, but that's become old hat for each at this point. Barring another Zapruder-esque conversation surfacing between Wade and LeBron, Whiteside would be the most entertaining Heat player to take part in All-Star festivities, bar none.
Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Not to take away from the career-best year point guard Brandon Knight is having, but there's only one choice to represent the Milwaukee Bucks during All-Star weekend: the Greek Freak himself, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo didn't make much noise during last year's Rising Stars Challenge, racking up only nine points on 3-of-3 shooting in 17 minutes, but he's likely to fare far better this time around. His freakish athleticism should help him generate numerous fast-break opportunities for the World Team, especially given the U.S. Team's lack of a veritable wing stopper.
Luckily, the Greek Freak won't just strut his stuff during Friday's Rising Stars Challenge. He's also set to take center stage Saturday night for the dunk contest, where he's likely to pose the biggest threat to Minnesota point guard Zach LaVine.
Antetokounmpo got into the dunk contest spirit Saturday night against the Portland Trail Blazers, it seems, breaking out a vicious one-handed windmill dunk on a fast-break feed from Khris Middleton. If he's capable of such monster jams during actual games, there's no telling what the Greek Freak might bust out in a contest where he doesn't have to worry about things like defenders and dribbling.
Given Antetokounmpo's insanely long stride length, one thing's for certain: Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan needs to be on notice during the dunk contest. The Greek Freak might put MJ's iconic free-throw line jam to shame.
Minnesota Timberwolves: Andrew Wiggins
Speaking of freakish athletes...All-Star weekend might be the official coming-out party for Minnesota Timberwolves rookie swingman Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins began his rookie season on a miserably slow foot, drawing unfavorable comparisons to NBA luminaries such as James Posey, Dudley Bradley and Mike O'Koren. For a No. 1 overall pick—and the key return from Minnesota's trade of All-Star forward Kevin Love—such comps couldn't have thrilled Wolves fans.
Over the past six weeks, however, Wiggins has put all such fears to rest. Starting with a 27-point eruption against the Cavaliers, the former Kansas Jayhawk has scored in double digits over each of the past 22 games, averaging 19.5 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.0 treys and 0.7 blocks in that span.
Unfortunately for the United States—both in the Rising Stars Challenge and the Olympics—Wiggins is Canadian, meaning he'll take the floor as part of the World Team during Friday's festivities. Pairing him with the Greek Freak on the same squad is just outright unfair to the U.S. Team, which should expect a non-stop barrage of explosive dunks from the two freakishly athletic forwards.
Even with his teammate Zach LaVine entering Saturday's dunk contest as the presumptive favorite, Wiggins is the Timberwolves' clear choice for ideal All-Star weekend competitor. He might not wind up being the next LeBron James, but given his ceiling, he figures to remain a fixture of All-Star festivities for years to come.
New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis
Was there any question which New Orleans Pelican would earn this nod?
Anthony Davis is an absolute freak of nature, and that's meant in the nicest way possible. The rangy Pelicans big man is averaging a preposterous 24.6 points, 10.5 rebounds and a league-high 2.8 blocks per game, making him the only player this season to average even 20 points, 10 boards and two rejections.
Just seven other players in NBA history have put up per-game averages of at least 24 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, and only one of them—Elton Brand—isn't a surefire lock for the Hall of Fame. Additionally, Davis currently sits atop the league's leaderboard in PER, threatening to smash the all-time single-season record in just his third career season.
If he's this dominant at age 21, what happens when he reaches his athletic prime in a few years? Davis will leave nothing but scorched earth in his wake.
Had fans not tabbed him as an All-Star starter out West—and they did, with the third-most votes of any player in either conference—NBA coaches would have selected him as a no-brainer pick. Choosing him as New Orleans' ideal representative is basically like saying the sky is blue and water is wet.
New York Knicks: Carmelo Anthony
Though Carmelo Anthony is nowhere near deserving of the All-Star Game starting nod fans awarded him, he's the only New York Knick worthy of participating in any of the festivities.
Anthony is just one of three Knicks with an above-average PER and the only Knick with a positive box plus/minus—sad, but true—and he also leads the team in win shares and value over replacement player despite having already missed 10 games. If that doesn't sum up the state of New York basketball this season, nothing will.
Even with Anthony putting up a perfectly respectable 24.2 points on 45 percent shooting, 6.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game, there's no justifying him earning a starting All-Star nod over someone like Chicago's Jimmy Butler, who's in the midst of a career-best year, or Atlanta's Paul Millsap or Al Horford. Though the East isn't nearly as loaded in terms of deserving All-Stars as the West, rewarding the star of a 10-39 team with a starting spot severely downplays the importance of winning.
Without Anthony, though, the Knicks wouldn't have a single player who deserves a spot in any of the All-Star weekend competitions. Undrafted rookie Langston Galloway has been a pleasant surprise of late, but he didn't come onto the scene until January, which should rule him out from Rising Stars Challenge eligibility.
With All-Star weekend taking place in New York, the Knicks deserve at least one home-court representative to preside over the proceedings. Anthony is worthy of his eighth All-Star selection; he's just not deserving of the starting spot fans handed to him.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant
It's nearly impossible to decide between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the Oklahoma City Thunder's ideal All-Star weekend representative.
In Durant, you have the team's leading scorer and the league's reigning MVP, albeit a player who's already missed 26 games due to a host of foot-related ailments. On the other hand, you have Westbrook, a walking triple-double threat who's the only player averaging at least 24 points, seven assists and six rebounds per game this season.
Durant leads the Thunder in terms of PER, true shooting percentage and win shares per 48 minutes, while Westbrook holds the team lead in win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player. In fact, Westbrook's mark in the latter category is more than double any of his fellow teammates' VORP, including KD.
Though Westbrook's explosive, violent style of play makes him a nightly must-watch, Durant's game appears specifically tailored for All-Star weekend. To wit, he's gone off for 30 or more points in each of the past four All-Star Games, tying Blake Griffin with a team-high 38 points last year (to go with 10 boards and six assists). Westbrook, meanwhile, has yet to crack more than 21 points in his three All-Star Game appearances to date.
Coaches awarded both a reserve bid to the All-Star Game this year, so luckily, we won't have to choose between one or the other. If only one OKC player could make the big game, though, Durant would have to be the choice because of how he routinely seems to catch fire during All-Star weekend.
Orlando Magic: Victor Oladipo
With a dead-man-walking head coach, it's frankly impressive the Orlando Magic have a single player worthy of partaking in All-Star weekend. In fact, they have three: rookie point guard Elfrid Payton, sophomore combo guard Victor Oladipo and fourth-year center Nikola Vucevic.
The former two earned spots on the U.S. Team for the Rising Stars Challenge, while Vucevic failed to make it onto the East's All-Star squad. Though Vucevic has the numbers to justify an All-Star bid—he's averaging a career-high 19.4 points and 11.2 rebounds while holding the team lead in PER, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus and value over replacement player—he's not Orlando's ideal All-Star weekend representative.
That distinction belongs to Oladipo, who will participate in Saturday's Slam Dunk Contest in addition to Friday's Rising Stars Challenge. The Indiana product possesses some serious hops—he clocked in with the second-highest vertical leap (42.0 inches) of anyone in his draft class—helping him sky high for thunderous dunks left and right.
Zach LaVine and Giannis Antetokounmpo may be favored heading into the dunk contest, but there's no ruling out a player capable of soaring in for mammoth slams like the one Oladipo recently unleashed against Milwaukee. This field of dunkers has real potential to reinvigorate interest in the contest, which would be a badly needed breath of fresh air for the Saturday of All-Star weekend.
Vucevic figures to bully his way onto an All-Star roster in the years to come, but Oladipo's dunking process helps him edge his much larger teammate as Orlando's ideal All-Star weekend competitor
Philadelphia 76ers: K.J. McDaniels
The rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers certainly don't lack for worthy Rising Stars Challenge candidates. While two of their young players made it onto the U.S. Team—namely, sophomore point guard Michael Carter-Williams and rookie center Nerlens Noel—two other omissions stand out in particular.
Sophomore forward Robert Covington has been on a one-man mission to scorch nets across the country since signing with the Sixers in mid-November, attempting a whopping 230 three-point attempts in 39 games (5.9 per night). Among the 28 players firing at least five triples a game, Big Shot Bob ranks 10th in three-point shooting percentage (.387), ahead of noted bombers James Harden, Damian Lillard and Ryan Anderson.
Covington wasn't even Philly's biggest snub from the Rising Stars Challenge, however. That distinction belongs to high-flying rookie swingman K.J. McDaniels, who has quickly become the No. 1 reason to watch this Sixers team on League Pass.
McDaniels is just one of three guards averaging at least one block per game this season, which comes as no surprise to anyone who watched him at Clemson. As Max Rappaport of the Sixers' official site recently noted, his "block percentage ranks eighth among all players this season; the seven players ahead of him are all 6'10" or taller."
With Carter-Williams' shooting still an eyesore and Noel struggling to assert his will offensively, the choice for Philly's ideal All-Star weekend representative boils down to Covington and McDaniels. Given the historic rate at which the latter is rejecting shots, he earns the nod over his three-point-bombing counterpart.
Phoenix Suns: Eric Bledsoe
The upstart Phoenix Suns don't have anyone worthy of an actual All-Star Game bid, but their three talented point guards would all be a welcome addition to the Saturday night festivities.
Just last year, Goran Dragic took part in the Skills Challenge, teaming with Oklahoma City Thunder combo guard Reggie Jackson. Though the Dragic-Jackson combo posted the best first-round time of the first three groups, Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard and Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke flew through the course, preventing Dragic and Jackson from advancing to the final.
Eric Bledsoe is also no stranger to All-Star weekend, having participated in the 2013 Slam Dunk Contest. Though his first dunk wasn't anything to write home about—he simply kissed the ball off the backboard before slamming it down—his second dunk was a monster two-handed reverse jam that earned a perfect score of 50.
Isaiah Thomas has yet to participate in an All-Star weekend event, but given his proclivity to fire away from deep, he'd be a welcome addition in this year's three-point shootout. On the season, Thomas is hitting a team-best 40 percent from deep while attempting 4.4 treys per game, the second-highest mark of any Sun.
How, then, to choose between the three? With Bledsoe leading the team in scoring, assists, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player, he ultimately earns the nod over his other two backcourt partners in crime.
Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard
The Portland Trail Blazers deserved two players in the All-Star Game this year: third-year point guard Damian Lillard and veteran big man LaMarcus Aldridge. Unfortunately, only the latter actually received a bid, as fans, coaches and even NBA Commissioner Adam Silver opted against putting the Weber State product on the Western Conference's squad.
Lillard and Aldridge are each having monster seasons, with the former posting per-game averages of 21.7 points, 6.3 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 steals and the latter averaging a team-high 23.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 blocks. Both rank first and second on the team in PER and win shares; Aldridge holds the lead in the former category, while Lillard leads in the latter.
How do you choose between the two for Portland's ideal All-Star weekend representative, then? It comes down to intangibles.
Lillard, for instance, won the Skills Challenge in each of the past two years, and he also competed in the three-point shootout, dunk contest, Rising Stars Challenge and All-Star Game last season. He was the first player in NBA history to take the floor for five events within the same All-Star weekend, telling USA Today's Sam Amick: "I'm capable of doing all the things that need to be done in all the competitions, so I figured why not go out and be the first one to do everything?"
Aldridge, meanwhile, has never participated in any of All-Star weekend's Saturday events, and has scored a grand total of eight points in his three All-Star Games combined. Given Lillard's diverse set of skills—and the fact he won't be defending his back-to-back Skills Challenge titles after being snubbed this year, via RealGM's Shams Charania—he edges Aldridge as Portland's ideal All-Star weekend rep.
Sacramento Kings: DeMarcus Cousins
The Sacramento Kings have just one player worthy of participating in All-Star weekend this year. Thanks to Adam Silver, DeMarcus Cousins will have that honor.
Fans and coaches failed to award the Sacramento big man a spot on the Western Conference All-Star squad, but Silver quickly tabbed him as Kobe Bryant's injury replacement. Frankly, it should have never come to that, as Cousins ranks sixth in the league in PER, seventh in scoring and third in rebounds.
With Cousins on the floor this season, the Kings have a net rating of plus-5.7, which would be a top-five mark across the league. When he's on the bench, Sacramento's net rating plummets to minus-12.6, below the Philadelphia 76ers' league-worst minus-11.2 mark.
Grantland's Zach Lowe summed up Cousins' All-Star case quite succinctly:
There is nothing in the NBA like peak Cousins. He is an unguardable monster on the block. The Kings are formidable when he plays and a D-League team when he sits. He was on track to be a no-brainer All-Star before coming down with viral meningitis and watching as the Kings decided they’d be better off with Tyrone Corbin coaching this season.
Though an All-Star-snub rampage from Cousins would have turned every Kings game into a must-watch affair, the big man truly deserved his first-ever bid this season. No other Sacramento player comes close—especially considering how quickly the team imploded in his illness-related absence back in December.
San Antonio Spurs: Tim Duncan
Had Kawhi Leonard not missed a month of the season with a torn ligament in his right hand, choosing the San Antonio Spurs' ideal All-Star weekend representative would likely be far more difficult.
Since he did, however, Tim Duncan is the runaway winner for that honor.
In true Spurs style, Duncan has once again slipped under the radar this season, despite averaging 17.3 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes, right in line with his career averages (20.5, 11.5 and 2.3, respectively). He also leads the league in defensive real plus-minus, per ESPN.com, and is tied for fifth in terms of defensive win shares.
While Duncan's per-game averages of 14.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocks don't exactly scream All-Star, the other three players averaging at least 14 points, 10 boards and 1.5 blocks—Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Pau Gasol—are each on the squad this season. Anyone decrying Duncan's All-Star spot as undeserved simply isn't paying attention to anything beyond per-game production.
Additionally, this could prove to be Duncan's last All-Star hoorah, as his contract is set to expire at season's end. Though Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told USA Today's Amick that he believes the future Hall of Famer will stave off retirement for at least one more year, there's no telling whether Duncan will continue performing at this caliber if he does opt to return.
Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry
Thanks in part to Justin Bieber, Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry edged out Miami Heat 2-guard Dwyane Wade for one of the Eastern Conference's starting backcourt spots for this year's All-Star Game. Though coaches certainly would have picked him as a reserve had he not won the fan vote, Lowry is deserving of the starting nod.
The Villanova product is averaging a career-best 19.0 points, 7.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game, making him one of just four players with per-game averages of 18 points, seven dimes and 4.5 boards this season. The other three—Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook—are each All-Stars.
Despite losing DeMar DeRozan to a torn groin muscle for a month-and-a-half, Lowry kept the Raptors afloat with the East's second-best record. He leads the team in PER, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player, making the four-year, $48 million contract he signed this past summer look like a steal in retrospect.
DeRozan earned the All-Star bid over Lowry last year, but his groin injury took him out of the running this time around. And while third-year center Jonas Valanciunas continues to produce at a high level, averaging 17.1 points and 11.6 rebounds per 36 minutes, his limited playing time (26.3 minutes per game) subverts his All-Star candidacy.
There was no denying Lowry of his rightful place on the East's All-Star squad this season. Luckily, fans didn't leave the decision up to coaches.
Utah Jazz: Rudy Gobert
The Utah Jazz will have no shortage of representation during Friday's Rising Stars Challenge. Sophomore point guard Trey Burke will be strutting his stuff for the U.S. Team, while rookie point guard Dante Exum and sophomore center Rudy Gobert will take the floor as part of the World Team.
Though Gordon Hayward has been Utah's best all-around player, leading the team in scoring, win shares and value over replacement player, the depth of elite talent out West eliminated any chance of his earning a bid to the All-Star Game. Accordingly, choosing the Jazz's ideal All-Star weekend representative boils down to picking among their three Rising Stars Challenge participants.
From there, the choice is easy: The 7'1" shot-swatting Gobert wins in a landslide. Despite averaging just 21.5 minutes, the man known as The French Rejection is tied for fourth in the NBA in blocks per game (2.1) and leads all players in block percentage, halting 7.8 percent of opponents' two-point attempts while he's on the floor.
Gobert leads the Jazz in terms of defensive win shares, win shares per 48 minutes and box plus/minus, and he's second on the team behind Derrick Favors in PER. According to Nylon Calculus, he allows opponents to convert a league-low 37.1 percent of their looks at the rim, and he saves a league-high 2.55 points per game.
Though All-Star weekend tends to be light on defense, seeing the U.S. Team attempt to convert looks in the paint against The Stifle Tower will add an extra element of intrigue to the Rising Stars Challenge. With all due respect to Utah's talented young point guard duo of Burke and Exum, Gobert crushes them as the Jazz's ideal All-Star weekend competitor.
Washington Wizards: John Wall
Remember those "Fast Don't Lie" commercials Adidas ran with Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose a few years ago? It might be time for the shoe company to dust off those ads and feature Washington Wizards point guard John Wall in the new iteration.
This season, Wall is putting that quickness to good use, as he's learned how best to fluctuate between a scorer and a facilitator on a possession-by-possession basis. He's just as likely to throw a cross-court dime to an open three-point shooter as he is to blow by his defender for an easy deuce at the rim.
Wall leads the Wizards in scoring, assists, PER, win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player, asserting himself as a bona fide superstar in his fifth NBA season. Fans rewarded him accordingly, showering him with the most All-Star Game votes of any backcourt player in the Eastern Conference.
Shooting guard Bradley Beal figures to join Wall in future All-Star Games—perhaps as early as next year—but he's struggled to find a rhythm after missing the Wizards' first nine contests due to wrist surgery. Paul Pierce has slid seamlessly into a complementary role with Washington, but he's hardly All-Star-worthy at this stage of his career, while Marcin Gortat and Nene haven't been consistent enough to merit a spot on the East's squad.
Wall, the reigning Slam Dunk Contest champion, is Washington's clear choice for an All-Star weekend participant, even if he won't be defending his dunk-contest crown this year. He's more than making up for it by challenging Stephen Curry to a head-to-head H-O-R-S-E-like game on that Saturday morning, which has the potential to become one of the highlights of the weekend.