Fantasy NBA All-Star Teams We'd Love to See in 2017-18
Thank you, NBA.
In a joint release with the National Basketball Players Association, the league announced wholesale changes to its annual All-Star Game, effective immediately. The gist of the tweaks: Two captains will assemble their own rosters irrespective of conference affiliation.
Nothing will change about the available pool of names. The East and West still send 12 players apiece to Staples Center on February 18: two backcourt starters, three frontcourt starters, two backcourt reserves, three frontcourt reserves and two wild-card spots.
Fan ballots will once again be worth 50 percent of the starter vote, with 25 percent shares awarded to the player and media results. Seven reserves for either conference will then be chosen by the league's coaches.
Each of the top vote-getters from the East and West, though, will now be named captains. They'll build their starting lineups from the remaining eight eligible players and then fill out the rest of their roster with the 14 reserve options.
So, naturally, we need to indulge our wildest fantasies posthaste.
These rosters are not built around any scientific premise. They take into account dream teammate pairings and player beefs more than anything else, with the occasional nod to complementary styles.
Starters are chosen relative to both their expected performance in 2017-18 and ability to garner fan votes. The reserve pool is more straightforward, with an emphasis on projected production.
The order in which players are selected is not a referendum on where they stand relative to other stars. Again: Captains will choose based on other factors, at times prioritizing rivalries and relationships over cobbling together the best possible product.
Captain No. 1 (East): LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Let's not get cute.
The Eastern Conference is trash, voting-wise. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the lone star who comes within sniffing distance of James' clout following the relocations of Jimmy Butler and Paul George, and he doesn't yet have the worldwide juice to overtake the four-time MVP.
Voters could always drum up Kyrie Irving's share if they're feeling petty, but James' on-court performance hasn't fallen enough for far-flung snark to displace him.
That brings up another, more salient point: James is still unfathomably good and working with loads of motivation. The Golden State Warriors outclassed his Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, and Irving no doubt incited some degree of vengeful rage within James by orchestrating an exit from The Land.
Expect James to play like he cares about winning a fifth MVP award—and then expect that to be reflected in his voting total.
Captain No. 2 (West): Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
It didn't take long for us to reach a controversial selection.
But Curry's brand remains strong. He finished second in the fan vote this past season, and that popularity hasn't waned.
Indeed, Durant is the reigning Finals MVP. His run-ins with the social media police over the summer might have even upped his curb appeal. But Curry's yo-yo handles and ungoverned shot selection make for better aesthetics and a slightly larger fanbase. Those who take this process ultra-seriously will also still be penalizing Durant for latching on to the greatest team of all time after the fact.
Rolling with Curry—who owned the NBA's best-selling jersey in 2016-17 for a second consecutive season—as the final captain is the safer, more sensible play.
Team LeBron's No. 1 Pick: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Don't overthink this spot.
James could avoid choosing a member of the Warriors at all costs. They're the primary rival for his Cavaliers, and extending an olive branch to the biggest—if only—obstacle standing between him and another championship feels weird.
Selecting Durant is especially debatable when viewed in these terms. People used his Finals MVP as a springboard into the larger "Has KD surpassed LeBron as the NBA's best player?" discussion. Syncing up with him, even in a playground setting, will be an opportunity for professional hot-take peddlers to assault his character.
James won't care, though. Winning a title in Cleveland inoculates him against paying credence to hyperbole addicts—for the most part. After laboring through six losses over the past seven All-Star bouts, he'll just want to win.
Drafting the Association's second-best player is the best way to do that, and he'll know it.
Team Steph's No. 1 Pick: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Things get super interesting if Curry winds up drafting No. 1 overall. He may then have to select Durant in the name of Good Optics. He could also choose Russell Westbrook, if he's feeling playfully spiteful. Heck, sensing James would roll with Durant at No. 2 anyway, a stone-cold killer like Kawhi Leonard would still play nicely.
Why call Leonard's name this year? Because Durant went at Curry's brand—his sneaker brand.
While making an appearance on the Bill Simmons Podcast, Durant suggested Under Armour's apparel deal with the University of Maryland is one reason the program doesn't land top recruits (h/t SB Nation's Michael D. Sykes II):
“I think a lot of kids, to be honest, they don’t choose Maryland unless they play in like an Under Armour system coming up. Shoe companies have a real big influence on where these kids go. Nobody wants to play in Under Armours, I’m sorry. The top kids don’t because they all play Nike.”
Is Curry really so petty he'd draft Leonard—one of the only players who will give an effort on defense during an exhibition showcase—with the sole purpose of making Durant's night a living hell?
You know what they say: Elephants and two-time MVPs never forget.
Team LeBron's No. 2 Pick: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Rumor has it James wants to play alongside a big who moves like a wing and has the wingspan of a pterodactyl.
Actually, no such rumor exists. This is more of a hunch. Who wouldn't want to join forces with that player?
It just so happens Anthony Davis is that player.
The over/under on the number of lobs he'll finish while running alongside Durant and James is six per minute, and you're best served betting the over. He will swallow shots at the rim if the teams mutually agree to give a damn about playing defense—and even if they don't, he'll be good for a few swats that end up anywhere between the fourth and 40th rows.
James, meanwhile, can use this unique face time with Davis to begin pipe-dream recruitment. The one-eye-browed megastar doesn't hit free agency until 2020 (player option), and the Cavaliers won't have cap space for roughly a millennium if they re-sign James, but they do own the Brooklyn Nets' 2018 first-round pick.
Funky things could happen if that selection falls in the top three, DeMarcus Cousins bolts in free agency after this season and Davis, having been put under James' trance, uncharacteristically demands a trade to Cleveland.
Mostly, though, this one's for the lobs.
Team Steph's No. 2 Pick: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Bringing in Antetokounmpo is a good counter to the Davis pick. Where James gets his wingamabig, Curry gets his whatchamacallit—a 6'11" playmaker with rim-protecting chops.
Antetokounmpo would cramp Team Steph's spacing if this were a regular game, but All-Star affairs are a free-for-all. The reigning Most Improved Player bursts through the soul of defenses when they're trying, so he'll have a field day in what is usually a nonsense-only environment.
Just picture Antetokounmpo while he's destroying ghosts (or, on occasion, actual defenders) in transition. Imagine how many times he'll kick out to a wide-open Curry on his mostly unimpeded drives. He won't need to let 'er fly from beyond the arc. Every other avenue will be available to him—just as it was last year, when he shot 14-of-17 in his All-Star debut.
And if Antetokounmpo does bomb away, there probably won't be a defender within shouting distance, increasing the chances he finds the bottom the net.
Team LeBron's No. 3 Pick: John Wall, Washington Wizards
What better way to complement two of the game's greatest scorers, Durant and James, than by drafting a pass-first point guard who could outrun a cheetah in transition?
Plugging him next to all three of Davis, Durant and James is patently unfair. Everyone on Team LeBron (thus far) becomes a prospective alley-oop finisher. Leonard might be able to neutralize one on any given possession, but even he'll give up trying when the remaining two are lifting off, untouched, and making sweet music above the rim.
Another thing Wall has going for him (spoiler alert): He's not Irving or Russell Westbrook.
Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers—and thus from under James' wing—after making three straight trips to the NBA Finals and winning one championship. Durant made things awkward between himself and Westbrook by leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Warriors in July 2016...mere weeks after the latter bounced the former from the Western Conference Finals.
At least one, if not both, will be part of reality's starter pool. James isn't picking either unless (or until) he's forced into it, because he obviously cares about basketball's petty politics like the rest of us.
Team Steph's No. 3 Pick: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Is Curry really this maniacal?
We can only hope.
On second thought, we can do more than that. If he's calculating enough to count on Leonard's ruining Durant's leisurely hooping, then he's diabolical enough to choose Joel Embiid, knowing it leaves Team LeBron to select Irving or Westbrook.
So please, oh please, let him be this petty.
As for Embiid, putting him inside the starter's pool is a big-time dice roll. He hasn't played in a game since Jan. 27 after suffering a meniscus tear in his left knee and isn't yet participating in full-court five-on-five matchups during practice, per The Athletic's Derek Bodner.
Still, stashing Embiid here isn't outlandish. The East is hemorrhaging star power, and the budding Philadelphia 76ers will afford him extra exposure if he's ready to rock in the near future. As Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes wrote in August while predicting Embiid would make the starter's cut:
"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."
Embiid posted the highest usage rate in NBA history among rookies to play at least 30 games (36). That volume will fall with Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons splitting time as the primary ball-handlers. But the Sixers also posted a top-seven net rating with Embiid in the game. He'll earn serious consideration should that impact carry over, even if his individual numbers do not.
And remember: Embiid is a brand unto himself. Antetokounmpo and James were the East's only frontcourt contributors to snag more votes than him last season. Persisting popularity will keep him in the mix if he's able to stay on the floor.
Team LeBron's No. 4 Pick: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Contrarian LeBron won't make a cameo this year. Sorry.
It would be epic if, when forced to choose between Irving and Westbrook, James beckoned toward his teammate-turned-rival. But he appeared genuinely confused/annoyed/hurt during the Cavaliers' media day when asked about the situation, and Irving has been indifferent, bordering on cold, when asked about it.
The rift between Durant and Westbrook isn't so fresh. It might not even exist. Newly minted Thunder star Paul George told ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski (h/t The Oklahoman's Adam Kemp) the former partners in crime "are back good again."
Even if they're not, Durant and Westbrook already buried the All-Star-night hatchet by sharing the court—and the ball—this past February. They've both moved on, too. Durant has his title; Westbrook has his MVP hardware and two new star collaborators in George and Carmelo Anthony.
No, Westbrook isn't the best tactical fit for Team LeBron with Wall already in tow. But he and Durant are far less likely to try freezing out one another. Irving would be the more combustible pick.
Team Steph's No. 4 "Pick": Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
Team Steph doesn't technically pick Irving. They're left with him. But this, again, has more to do with Curry's channeling his inner evildoer and putting James and Durant in an awkward position than anything else.
Irving is actually a great fit for this squad. They can feed each other wide-open catch-and-shoot threes, and no one team—All-Star or otherwise—has ever deployed two players with their abracadabra handles at the same time.
Equally important: You can't put a price on motivational tools. Irving will try to put James on skates every chance he gets, while Curry will no doubt want to remind Durant who the Warriors' real alpha superhero is.
In the event Team Steph rips a victory out from under Team LeBron, Curry and Irving have co-MVP potential. At bare minimum, they'll be absurdly fun to watch as they set the NBA record for pull-up 30-footers hoisted in a single game.
Team LeBron's No. 5 Pick (Reserve): Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
Diplomacy wins out as we leak into the reserve pool.
No good can come if James passes on Kevin Love with his fifth pick. Better players will be on the board, but not one of them will be worth the subsequent ruckus.
Depending on who James prioritized over his actual teammate, he'll have either lost faith in Love or tipped his hand on where he plans to sign as a free agent (player option) next summer. Playing it safe saves James a few dozen migraines and couple thousand questions from those who like to read between the lines.
This issue is moot if Love doesn't make the All-Star docket. Ergo, it won't be moot. The Cavaliers need someone to pick up the slack after Irving's exit and with Isaiah Thomas nursing a hip injury. Head coach Tyronn Lue told ESPN.com's Zach Lowe that someone will be Love:
"Kevin is going to have the best year that he's had here. I thought he was great anyway. You keep bringing up [Chris] Bosh. What did Bosh average in Miami? Kevin averaged almost 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] with two other All-Stars. If you are on a championship-caliber team, you have to sacrifice. But this year is going to be a big opportunity for him. We're going to play through him more. He's going to get those elbow touches again."
Believe this when you see it. Elbow touches aren't a staple of James-piloted offenses, Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade will cut into Love's usage, and Thomas will eventually return. But Love will still get an organic boon from the star-starved Eastern Conference, and by virtue of playing more center, where he remains a matchup nightmare.
Team Steph's No. 5 Pick (Reserve): Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Curry, like James, won't risk unnecessary bad vibes in the locker room by looking past a teammate. If Draymond Green is on the board, he'll take him.
Going against this grain doesn't subject him to the same repercussions James would face by letting Love hang around. Curry won't be a free agent until 2022, and Green is under contract through 2019-20. Not even the deftest pot-stirrers can whip up worthwhile drama.
At the same time, why risk it? More than that, why put yourself on the wrong end of Green's trash talk?
Instead, why not band together, as you have for the past half-decade, and try proving to Durant that he still can't win without both of you by his side?
Picks Nos. 6 to 8
Team LeBron's No. 6 Pick: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
Curry's statecraft is the Los Angeles Lakers' gain. Selecting Green at No. 5 reopens the door for James to pick George and fire up a whole bunch of water-cooler talk-show conspiracy theories.
"James choosing George in an otherwise meaningless game would create unprecedented buzz," Michael Pina wrote for Vice Sports. "The plot would thicken for an offseason subplot that hangs over the entire sport every single day. This would be heaven for people who care about that stuff (aka everyone who enjoys the NBA)."
One downside to this pick: Lakers president Magic Johnson may suffer a lacerated cornea from winking too hard.
Team Steph's No. 6 Pick: Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
Assuming he's not tabbed to coach one of these teams, San Antonio Spurs head honcho Gregg Popovich would storm Staples Center if Leonard plays more than five 20 minutes during a glorified dunk contest.
In other words, Team Steph, driven by its captain's pretend pettiness, needs another relentless gnat to throw at Durant. No one else on the board is more likely to accidentally play real defense than Jimmy Butler.
Team LeBron's No. 7 Pick: Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
James will have already passed twice on adding a member of the banana boat crew. He won't do so a third time.
Team Steph's No. 7 Pick: Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics
A surprising dearth of wings leads Curry to tag Gordon Hayward, who will be extremely disappointed his move from Utah to Boston didn't generate enough starter buzz. But don't worry. He'll get over it after finishing his first pass from Curry off a backdoor cut.
Team LeBron's No. 8 Pick: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Childish politics and grudges—and, in Hayward's case, better defenders—drag Harden down the totem pole. He could drop a little lower if Team LeBron doesn't want to add another ball-dominant playmaker.
Except, after putting Durant and Westbrook on the same side to spare himself from playing with Irving, Captain James has a moral obligation to reunite Oklahoma City's original Big Three.
Team Steph's No. 8 Pick: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
One of Team Steph's point guards needs to be cool with assuming the role of spot-up specialist and infrequent-to-occasional defender. Kyle Lowry fits that bill better than Irving or commander-in-chief Curry.
Picks Nos. 9 to 11
Team LeBron's No. 9 Pick: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
More. Defensive. Rebounds.
Also: Karl-Anthony Towns would have a case to usurp Davis in the starter's field if playing for Minnesota didn't cap his final voting tallies. He finished closer to LaMarcus Aldridge than Cousins last year, and co-headlining a postseason-bound unit can only elevate his profile so much.
Team Steph's No. 9 Pick: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
Perhaps Curry will want to bring another lethal driver and spot-up marksman into the fold.
Or maybe he, like the rest of us, just wants to see Bradley Beal's first All-Star appearance pit him against Wall.
Team LeBron's No. 10 Pick: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
This is James' "I watch more basketball than the rest of you" pick. Khris Middleton is an ideal complement to any team he's directing—a flamethrowing spot-up shooter who will, contrary to the spirit of All-Star festivities, play his butt off on defense.
If his inclusion on this list makes you uncomfortable, feel free to tweet out DeMar DeRozan's scoring average. Middleton is a viable alternative given the East's shallow well of star power—particularly when he'll need to assume a more prominent role while the Milwaukee Bucks await Jabari Parker's return from another ACL injury.
Team Steph's No. 10 Pick: Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
At 6'11", Antetokounmpo gives Team Steph a big who moves like a wing—an answer to Team LeBron's currying favor with Davis.
At 7'3", though, Kristaps Porzingis gives Team Steph a bigger big who moves like a wing.
By the way: If you're feeling more uneasy about Porzingis' All-Star candidacy than Embiid's eligibility, join the club. The New York Knicks are not to be trusted with his development. His volume should increase with Anthony gone, but Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway Jr. are there, so he's guaranteed nothing.
Team LeBron's No. 11 Pick: Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Wall and Westbrook don't offer Team LeBron much as off-ball options. Paul is a quality catch-and-shoot assassin, but James needs more point guards who can orbit his and Durant's drives.
Kemba Walker wrapped 2016-17 as one of the NBA's deadliest spot-up snipers. He'll do. Besides, this team needs another crossover connoisseur to combat whatever off-the-bounce voodoo Curry and Irving practice.
Team Steph's No. 11 Pick: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Sincerest apologies to Rudy Gobert. This spot could easily go to him. But the Jazz's offense remains an unknown without Hayward and George Hill, and anchoring a top-three defense won't be enough to vault him past Nikola Jokic's clairvoyant court vision.
Team Steph once again doesn't have a choice in this matter—unless the NBA gives the second captain first crack at the reserve litter, thereby reversing this order—but leftovers don't get better than Jokic. He'll throw touchdown passes to anyone who leaks out in transition (so, everyone), and his off-the-charts selflessness will act as an invaluable recruiting tool while surrounded by so many superstars.
G: John Wall
G: Russell Westbrook
F: LeBron James
F: Kevin Durant
F: Anthony Davis
Reserves: Kevin Love; Paul George; Chris Paul; James Harden; Karl-Anthony Towns; Khris Middleton; Kemba Walker.
G: Stephen Curry
G: Kyrie Irving
F: Kawhi Leonard
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo
F: Joel Embiid
Reserves: Draymond Green; Jimmy Butler; Gordon Hayward; Kyle Lowry; Bradley Beal; Kristaps Porzingis; Nikola Jokic.