No All-Star Game features a higher threshold of inclusion than the NBA's selective affair.
So many NFL players bow out of the Pro Bowl that the league eventually invites barely above-average players to fill the rosters. In an attempt to make everyone feel invested, MLB requires each team to have at least one All-Star representative.
The NBA All-Star Game, however, is an entirely different animal. For starters, the same superstars tend to win the fan vote whether they're at the peak of their prowess (Stephen Curry, LeBron James) or still coasting on their legacy (Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade to a lesser extent). Once the polls are closed, each conference only has seven spots left to fill.
Some obvious starting snubs will be fast-tracked to the Toronto festivities, leaving few vacant spots for fringe candidates. Will the coaches also favor the legendary veterans? Will they only show love to stars from the league's top teams, leaving individual excellence unnoticed? The choices aren't easy on either side.
|NBA All-Star Game Starters|
|POS||Eastern Conference||Western Conference|
|Backcourt||Dwyane Wade, MIA||Stephen Curry, GS|
|Backcourt||Kyle Lowry, TOR||Russell Westbrook, OKC|
|Frontcourt||LeBron James, CLE||Kobe Bryant, LAL|
|Frontcourt||Paul George, IND||Kevin Durant, OKC|
|Frontcourt||Carmelo Anthony, NYK||Kawhi Leonard, SA|
|East Reserve Predictions|
|Backcourt||Jimmy Butler, SG||CHI|
|Backcourt||John Wall, PG||WAS|
|Frontcourt||Andre Drummond, C||DET|
|Frontcourt||Paul Millsap, PF||ATL|
|Frontcourt||Chris Bosh, PF||MIA|
|Wild Card||DeMar DeRozan, SG||TOR|
|Wild Card||Isaiah Thomas, PG||BOS|
The fans stepped up at the last minute, avoiding a huge mistake by voting Kyle Lowry in over Kyrie Irving. While the Eastern Conference coaches would have needed to use a reserve spot on the deserving Toronto Raptors point guard, they will now look elsewhere from Irving, who spent most of the first half sidelined with a knee injury.
Go ahead and write in Jimmy Butler and John Wall with permanent ink. Butler has become the Chicago Bulls' unquestioned leading man, registering career highs in points (22.3) and assists (4.2) while logging more minutes (38.3) per game than anyone in the Association. Although the Washington Wizards have floundered, Wall's 9.8 assists per contest rank second behind Sacramento Kings floor general Rajon Rondo.
Lowry's backcourt companion in Toronto, DeMar DeRozan, should benefit from his teammate's late surge into the starting lineup. Often regarded as a high-volume scorer, the shooting guard is registering 23.0 points per contest with a 44.2 field-goal percentage, his highest clip since 2012-13.
The 26-year-old couldn't beat out Wade, who will start alongside Lowry. Yet the Miami Heat star noted their similarities to the Miami Herald's Ethan J. Skolnick:
The frontcourt is littered with feasible options. After falling short of a starting spot to Carmelo Anthony, Detroit Pistons big man Andre Drummond stands out as the most likely candidate. His league-best 15.2 rebounds per game and 38 double-doubles will catch coaches' attention.
Following the 22-year-old center's 22 boards against the New Orleans Pelicans on Thursday, ESPN highlighted his dominance on the glass:
This leaves two frontcourt slots and one wild card, the other allocated to DeRozan. He's not as popular among casual hoops fans as Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, Pau Gasol or even rookie sensation Kristaps Porzingis, but Paul Millsap perfectly embodies an Atlanta Hawks team that is again floating under the radar.
While a 27-19 record is a letdown after last year's 60-win campaign, it's good enough for the East's No. 3 seed. Millsap leads the charge with averages of 18.4 points, 8.8 boards, 3.5 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks, all career highs.
According to ESPN.com, his 23.9 player efficiency rating (PER) ranks second among all qualified Eastern Conference players behind James. The stat tends to favor big men, but he's not a pure dunker who'd exploit the formula's flaws.
Less than a year after dealing with blood clots in his lung, Bosh is back and posting 19.2 points and 7.6 rebounds while offering undervalued defense to Miami. The two-way stud gets the nudge over more offensive-minded adversaries.
The Boston Celtics have compiled an Eastern Conference-high 104.3 points per contest. Isaiah Thomas deserves much of the credit, accruing 21.7 points and 6.7 assists per bout. A litany of alternatives could steal the final spot instead, but Thomas' electric offense adds some spark to the squad.
|West Reserve Predictions|
|Backcourt||Chris Paul, PG||LAC|
|Backcourt||James Harden, SG||HOU|
|Frontcourt||Draymond Green, PF||GS|
|Frontcourt||DeMarcus Cousins, PF/C||SAC|
|Frontcourt||Anthony Davis, PF/C||NO|
|Wild Card||Klay Thompson, SG||GS|
|Wild Card||LaMarcus Aldridge, PF/C||SA|
Let's get the obvious guys out of the way. Because of Kobe Bryant's farewell tour, Draymond Green will settle for a bench role despite functioning as the heart and soul of the 41-4 Golden State Warriors. Blocked by Curry and Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and James Harden won't have any trouble securing a seat on a loaded Western Conference roster.
Last year, DeMarcus Cousins was initially left out of the lineup before replacing the injured Bryant. This time around, the Sacramento Kings star shouldn't need to wait for someone to drop out.
After scoring 104 combined points over a two-game stretch, Cousins is averaging 27.3 points, which ranks third behind Curry and Harden. His unbelievable January should secure one of three frontcourt bids:
|DeMarcus Cousins' January Stats|
Anthony Davis' inclusion isn't automatic. Rather than taking the next leap to superstardom, he has recorded a career-low 49.2 field-goal percentage. Although far from entirely his fault, the 16-28 New Orleans Pelicans have erased all their progress after sneaking into the postseason last year.
Even so, falling off slightly from a prominent MVP candidate shouldn't keep him out of this exhibition clash. A down season for the 22-year-old means only amassing 22.9 points, 10.2 boards and 2.4 blocks per game.
Just like that, we're down to two remaining spots. Klay Thompson and LaMarcus Aldridge are top contributors on historically good teams. Dirk Nowitzki keeps going strong during his 18th season. Had he stayed healthy, Blake Griffin would have garnered a selection. Los Angeles Clippers teammate DeAndre Jordan could instead steal the spotlight. Although likely to fall on deaf ears, Karl-Anthony Towns and Damian Lillard have fairly strong cases despite playing for losing teams.
Established veterans on winning teams tend to carry an edge, so Towns and Lillard will have to wait their turn. Even if their stat sheets don't stand out, expect Thompson and Aldridge to receive recognition because of their understated roles on championship contenders.
Taking a back seat offensively behind Curry, Thompson has still mounted 20.3 points per game with a 58.7 true-shooting percentage, per Basketball-Reference.com. Other players have gaudier numbers, but the shooting guard is maximizing his role with the Warriors.
Aldridge hasn't averaged so few points (15.6) since playing limited minutes as a rookie, and this season he has logged just 29.4 minutes per night. Yet the coaches will likely select more than one player (Kawhi Leonard) from the 38-7 San Antonio Spurs, who have morphed into a defensive dynamo in part thanks to the forward's arrival.
Nowitzki and Jordan are especially difficult snubs, but there's never enough room for every deserving player.
Honorable Mentions: Dirk Nowitzki, DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Damian Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns, Gordon Hayward, Dwight Howard, Tony Parker