2018 NBA All-Star Predictions for Starters and Reserves
Can the NBA expand the All-Star rosters already?
Every season since 1982, the league has featured 12 players from each conference during the midseason festivities, and that's not going to be any different this year. Captains will determine the final teams, but only after the rosters are selected in traditional fashoin—five starters (announced Thursday on TNT, along with the captains) and seven reserves per conference. Our goal here is to figure out the men who will be included in the pool, but it's first worth noting how many more should be honored.
During the 1981-82 season, the NBA only had 23 teams and featured fewer players on the financial ledgers. Only 316 players in total suited up during that campaign, which means the top 24 represented 7.6 percent of the population.
Thanks to the expansion of both regular-season rosters and the total number of teams in the Association, we're no longer close to replicating that. A staggering 483 players have already suited up in 2017-18, and that number will continue to swell as the year progresses. The top 24 now represent only 5.0 percent of the full fraternity, which means deserving candidates such as Tyreke Evans and Lou Williams who don't have the necessary history could, unfortunately, get squeezed out of the proceedings.
In order to replicate the original meaning of an All-Star selection, each conference should get 18 representatives. Alas, that's a battle for another day.
For the time being, we must stick to 12 apiece. And that means some tough choices are coming as I piece together the most likely selections—not my personal ballot—from the East and West.
Eastern Conference Reserves
Backcourt Reserve: Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers
After an experience with the Oklahoma City Thunder in which he learned how to operate away from the primary action, Victor Oladipo is putting all the pieces together for the Indiana Pacers. While still holding his own defensively, he's been an unabashed offensive force, averaging 24.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 49.0 percent from the field, 41.6 percent from downtown and 78.9 percent at the stripe.
Oladipo is closer to earning the East's second starting backcourt slot than falling from the list of reserves. Boosting the Pacers' net rating by 14.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor goes quite a long way.
Backcourt Reserve: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry hasn't quite been the same dominant threat he's functioned as for the Toronto Raptors in previous seasons. In fact, this is the first campaign in quite some time in which he isn't unquestionably the premier contributor on his own roster.
But even as his shooting figures drop to lower levels, Lowry has remained a devastating presence by making some subtle changes. He's become a more effective passer who rarely turns the rock over, is taking an even higher percentage of his looks from downtown and has continued to serve as a hounding presence always willing to sacrifice his 6'0" frame on the defensive end.
Frontcourt Reserve: Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
From a purely objective standpoint, Kristaps Porzingis isn't going to measure up against many of the men joining him on this Eastern Conference roster. His shooting splits (43.4/38.3/81.3) are solid, but they still represent backsliding from his sophomore efforts—troubling for a volume shooter.
And that's why context matters. Factor in Porzingis' changing role with the New York Knicks, one that now asks him to suddenly take over as the obvious No. 1 option, and his incredible defensive chops (he leads the league in blocks per game and has been a stifling presence at the rim), and he's still an obvious All-Star inclusion.
Frontcourt Reserve: Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
Some of the early-season fervor about Andre Drummond's all-around improvement has died down as the collective Detroit Pistons begin to cool, but the 24-year-old center is still playing like a vastly different hooper. His free-throw percentage has skyrocketed from 38.6 to 63.0 percent while he becomes drastically more involved as a distributor and plays with more confidence on the offensive end.
Pair that growth with increased spatial awareness on defense and the league lead in rebounds per game, and you have an All-Star center.
Frontcourt Reserve: Al Horford, Boston Celtics
How many qualified players in the league have been able to average at least 13 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a block? None of those individual marks are particularly impressive, but the exclusive club contains only three members: LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins and Al Horford.
Horford will rarely blow you away in any singular area, but his importance to the Boston Celtics can't be overstated. Precious few players are capable of functioning like a Defensive Player of the Year candidate on one end and then running to the other and serving as a secondary distributing hub who drags opposing bigs out of the paint.
Wild Card: John Wall, Washington Wizards
John Wall got off to a slow start in 2017-18, failing to look completely healthy when attacking the basket and struggling to impact the proceedings on the less glamorous end. He's worked to change that narrative as the year progressed and is now averaging 22.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 10.3 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.3 blocks over his last 10 appearances while slashing 43.5/38.9/73.6.
That should be enough for him to capitalize on his All-Star reputation and earn one of the final two spots, taking advantage of recency bias and name recognition to get the nod over teammate Bradley Beal. The shooting guard has been more valuable thus far, but these are predictions rather than merit-based selections.
Wild Card: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons looks the part of a transcendent talent for the Philadelphia 76ers, overcoming his distinct lack of jump-shooting ability by getting to the basket at will and finishing at an elite rate. Though he's not as important to Philly's success as Joel Embiid, his passing chops and shocking defensive ability have still made him rather valuable to the Eastern upstarts.
Has Simmons been "better" than Bradley Beal, Kevin Love or Kemba Walker? Probably not, though it's at least debatable. But popularity, flashiness and reputation matter, which will inevitably make it difficult for the coaches to omit the Rookie of the Year front-runner when he's taken the NBA world by storm.
Notable Alternates: Bradley Beal, Tobias Harris, Kevin Love, Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker
Eastern Conference Backcourt Starter: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 24.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
On offense, Kyrie Irving's game hasn't changed that much as he transitions from LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers to running the show for the Boston Celtics. He's averaging fewer assists per game while wearing a green uniform, and his passes and potential assists are down, too.
But he's now free to lead the scoring charge, and he's taken full advantage.
Irving remains a ball-handling wizard who's capable of breaking down any assignment in isolation, where he's scoring 0.99 points per possession (71.2 percentile) despite tremendous responsibilities and defensive attention. He's a formidable shooter who can pull up anywhere in the half-court set and splash in triples with reckless abandon. The point guard's scoring average is slightly down from last year, but the contributions are coming on a career-high true shooting percentage.
And yet, his defense has driven the improvement narrative. No longer is he content to sit back and function as a liability, conserving his energy for the next scoring possession. He's going out of his way to spearhead the suffocating Boston defense and remaining engaged in off-ball situations.
Is Irving a defensive ace? Of course not. But he doesn't need to be while contributing this much on the offensive side. Just becoming mediocre under the supervision of head coach Brad Stevens has gone a long way—both in terms of production and perception.
Eastern Conference Backcourt Starter: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.4 points, 4.2 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
In previous seasons, DeMar DeRozan has still been a great basketball player. Don't be fooled by the incongruous arguments between proponents of advanced metrics and the eye test, because solid analysis always pegged the high-scoring shooting guard as a tremendous offensive contributor.
The question—likely rooted in subpar on/off splits—always revolved around whether he could be built around successfully, given his commandeering style and mid-range proclivities.
He's answered it this year.
The Toronto Raptors have technically still posted a superior net rating when he's off the floor, but that's largely due to the remarkable chemistry of the second unit that allows it to storm past opposing benches. Toronto is still outscoring the opposition by 6.9 points per 100 possessions when DeRozan plays—a drastic improvement from last year's 3.3 net rating, which was one of the team's worst marks among rotation players.
DeRozan is still playing to his mid-range strengths, but he's worked to cut the isolation habits out of his game and replaced them with a more egalitarian mentality. He's willing to distribute the ball in appropriate situations, and he's no longer hesitating to fire away from beyond the rainbow, where he's taking 3.2 attempts per game and connecting at a 35.6 percent clip—both career highs.
This isn't a "different" version of the 2-guard, so much as an evolved one.
Eastern Conference Frontcourt Starter: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
- 1999-00 Karl Malone: 379.57 TPA in Year 15
- 2017-18 LeBron James: 331.0 TPA in Year 15
- 2000-01 Karl Malone: 319.54 TPA in Year 16
- 2012-13 Kobe Bryant: 278.52 TPA in Year 17
- 1984-85 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 277.1 TPA in Year 16
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.7 steals, 1.1 blocks
What more can LeBron James do?
The Cleveland Cavaliers, in spite of putrid defense and offensive inconsistency, are still contending for home-court advantage in the opening round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. And a certain four-time MVP is doing all the heavy lifting. For objective evidence, we can look beyond his historically excellent per-game marks and dive into NBA Math's total points added.
Not only does James' score of 331.0 lead the league with room to spare, but he's already surpassed almost all the best marks in league history of anyone playing in at least the 15th season of his career:
That's not too shabby for someone with nearly half the season remaining. And the expected gap—James is on pace to finish the campaign at 631.21 TPA—might still pale in comparison to the gulf between him and the rest of the Cavaliers.
Second place in Cleveland? Kevin Love at 36.99 TPA. No one else is in the positives.
Heavy lifting, indeed.
Eastern Conference Frontcourt Starter: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 28.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.2 blocks
Thanks to both availability and per-game excellence, Giannis Antetokounmpo has scored more points than everyone in the NBA other than LeBron James during the 2017-18 campaign. DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeMarcus Cousins, Dwight Howard and Russell Westbrook are the only men who have hauled in more rebounds.
And the 23-year-old's statistical superiority doesn't end there.
He ranks No. 35 in total assists, directly behind Stephen Curry and Tyreke Evans. Only 15 players have more steals, while just 14 have swatted away more shots. Oh, and just for good measure, Antetokounmpo ranks No. 11 in field-goal percentage among all qualified players. He can do everything...except knock down triples in bunches.
Last year's Most Improved Player, Antetokounmpo should be in contention for the award yet again. Thanks to the infusion of Eric Bledsoe's ball-handling ability, he might not have a chance to finish in the top 20 of every major category like he did last year, but he's taken significant strides to become a dominant scorer with a distinct chance to win the points-per-game crown and has done so while somehow cutting down on his turnovers.
Even without a consistent jumper, Antetokounmpo has proved impossible to slow down.
Eastern Conference Frontcourt Starter: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.9 blocks
Joel Embiid isn't a perfect basketball player.
The Philadelphia 76ers are still careful managing his minutes, leading to both in-game restrictions and absences during back-to-backs. He's struggled with his perimeter shooting, connecting on just 28.9 percent of his treys but still firing away 3.1 times per contest. Turnovers are an issue, as he can get careless with the rock in traffic.
But despite those notable flaws, Embiid often functions like the NBA's best center.
Players his size (7'0") aren't supposed to have the ball-handling skills and shooting touch necessary to break down defenders on the outskirts of the half-court set. They're especially not supposed to possess that ability a possession after showcasing post moves that might turn Hakeem Olajuwon green with envy. And all the while, Embiid remains a stifling defensive presence so dominant on the interior that he makes the opposition actively avoid driving into his domain.
When the 23-year-old is on the floor, the Sixers become a bona fide juggernaut, outscoring foes by a staggering 8.7 points per 100 possessions. That's easily the best on-court net rating among all Philadelphia rotation members, outpacing Robert Covington (6.4), JJ Redick (3.9) and Ben Simmons (2.0) by wide margins.
Western Conference Reserves
West Backcourt Reserve: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Yes, Russell Westbrook is scoring less frequently than he did as an MVP winner for the Oklahoma City Thunder, due in large part to his shooting percentages: 43.8 percent from the field, 31.8 percent from downtown and 70.6 percent from the stripe. Yes, he's turning the ball over too often and displaying inconsistent effort as the tip of OKC's defensive spear.
He's still been an incredibly valuable presence for the Thunder, elevating their net rating by 12.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and coming awfully close to averaging a triple-double for a second consecutive season.
West Backcourt Reserve: Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves
Given his willingness to fire away from downtown and his proficiency fighting through traffic on the interior of the Minnesota Timberwolves' half-court action, Jimmy Butler is having the most efficient scoring season of his career. That's particularly impressive when he's been tasked with so much defensive responsibility on a squad that doesn't exactly have stoppers at every position.
Butler took a bit of time to successfully transition from the Chicago Bulls to the 'Wolves, but he's comfortable at this stage of his reunion with head coach Tom Thibodeau. As a result, he's been so excellent that he sits at No. 10 in Basketball-Reference's NBA MVP Award Tracker.
West Frontcourt Reserve: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Karl-Anthony Towns has quietly started to improve on the defensive end, no longer biting on as many pump fakes or twisting himself into the ground in a futile effort to slow down the opposition. He's by no means a legitimate stopper, but he's avoided serving as an unmitigated liability as of late.
But that's not why he's an All-Star, of course. Credit for that inevitable honor (which has eluded him during his first two professional seasons) goes to his well-rounded scoring chops, which feature efficient play on the inside and the outside for the surging 'Wolves.
West Frontcourt Reserve: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Maybe you'd like your All-Stars to score more than 11.1 points per game. Perhaps you want them to shoot better than 30.5 percent from three-point range. You might wish for them to average at least a double-double.
Draymond Green doesn't care, since he's continued to serve as a Defensive Player of the Year threat while racking up assists and sparking the Golden State Warriors, for whom he serves as a beating heart on both ends of the floor.
West Frontcourt Reserve: LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
While Kawhi Leonard has battled through injuries, LaMarcus Aldridge has served as the San Antonio Spurs' saving grace by carrying a monumental load on the offensive end. The power forward is capitalizing upon the high-usage opportunity to submit one of the finest seasons of his illustrious career, spacing out the opposition with a newfound three-point stroke and the persistence of his deadly mid-range game.
Aldridge might not be your prototypical All-Star, especially in today's NBA. But he's playing too well to be denied, and the Spurs, who somehow continue to track toward home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs, have to earn at least one representative.
West Wild Card: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
The snubs must end.
Damian Lillard has been omitted from the Western Conference's All-Star squad each of the last two seasons, but that's about to change. Though his three-point stroke has been uncharacteristically awry for the Portland Trail Blazers, the Weber State product has made monumental strides on defense, gotten more involved as a facilitator and used his scorching work at the charity stripe to remain quite efficient as a scorer.
West Wild Card: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
Three. And. D.
Take a guess how many qualified players in NBA history have taken at least five triples per game and connected on more than 43 percent of them (Paul George is at 7.2 and 43.1) while stealing the ball at least twice per contest and posting a positive defensive box plus/minus.
*Cue Jeopardy theme music.*
Stephen Curry did so twice and won MVP during both relevant seasons. George is the only other man to meet the criteria.
Notable Alternates: Clint Capela, Tyreke Evans, Gary Harris, Nikola Jokic, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson, Lou Williams
Western Conference Backcourt Starter: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 27.6 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.1 blocks
Had he not missed a handful of games recovering from a sprained ankle, Stephen Curry might be your current MVP front-runner. That's not meant as disrespect to James Harden or LeBron James, because the Golden State Warriors point guard really has been that good.
Remember when Curry won the league's premier individual award in unanimous fashion? He did so while averaging 30.1 points, 6.7 assists and 3.3 turnovers on a 66.9 true shooting percentage.
Well, Curry is now posting 27.6 points, 6.5 dimes and 2.8 cough-ups per contest, and his true shooting percentage stands at an ostentatious 67.1 percent. Somehow, he's gotten even more efficient by attacking the basket more frequently and slashing 49.3/41.4/91.7. The 29-year-old is an unrelenting offensive machine.
You can point to Curry's absences and argue that he hasn't been on the court long enough to start the All-Star Game. You can highlight his defensive woes, though he remains an underrated positional stopper who understands how to force his assignments into tough situations. But those arguments fall flat; Curry's value matches up with anyone in spite of the missed outings.
He ranks No. 5 in NBA Math's total points added. Only eight players have earned more win shares, and ditto for RPM wins. These are all volume-based metrics where men are rewarded for additional time spent on the floor.
Curry hasn't needed those extra minutes.
Western Conference Backcourt Starter: James Harden, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 32.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.5 blocks
Even with a Grade 2 left hamstring strain knocking him out of action and curtailing his momentum, James Harden should remain the current favorite in the MVP race. He might not enjoy as much nationwide popularity as Stephen Curry or LeBron James (see: All-Star voting results), but his offensive impact on the Houston Rockets is unmatched.
Not only is the bearded guard leading the NBA's scoring race by tallying a jaw-dropping 32.3 points per game, but he's doing so while shooting 45.1 percent from the field, 39.0 percent from downtown (on 10.6 attempts per game) and 86.7 percent at the stripe (on 10.5 attempts per game). Not only is he posting those ridiculous percentages, but he's finding time to rack up 9.1 assists during his average appearance.
The follicular forest is no longer Harden's most notable trait. It's been replaced by pure mastery of NBA offense.
No matter what looks a defense sends in his direction, he knows how to pick it apart. Whether by dancing around on the perimeter before splashing in a long-range jumper, driving to the hoop and baiting referees into blowing their whistles or forcing a defense to compress before casually kicking the ball to an open shooter, he's always in control.
Harden's injury is unfortunate. It just shouldn't prevent him from becoming a remarkably easy choice for the starting lineup.
Western Conference Frontcourt Starter: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.8 steals, 2.1 blocks
What more could you want to see from Kevin Durant?
Though he's still struggling to take over the "best player alive" title, he's not far from the crown. His second season with the Golden State Warriors has allowed him to make continual strides in little areas, leaving him on the verge of the 50/40/90 club while developing as a distributor and playing some of the best defense of his professional career.
Durant requires constant attention from the opposition. He's frequently subjected to extra help when handling the ball, and defenders are awfully hesitant to neglect him in off-ball situations. The gravitational pull is immense, which helps Golden State score an additional 6.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
But his growth has been even more noticeable on defense, where he's capable of staying in front of smaller foes while using his lanky arms and never-ending frame to baffle rim-running attacks. Opponents are shooting 57.4 percent against Durant on their 4.4 contested takes to the hoop per game, which gives him comparable numbers to Draymond Green (55.0 and 4.6, respectively).
The 29-year-old has become a complete player who also happens to be one of the deadliest offensive juggernauts on the planet.
Western Conference Frontcourt Starter: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 26.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.1 steals, 2.1 blocks
When Anthony Davis burst onto the NBA season during his second and third professional seasons, looking every bit the part of a two-way star who would one day take over the league, the basketball-watching world drooled over the player he might become.
Now, we're seeing that hypothetical in action.
The unibrowed big man even became the No. 1 player listed in Micah Adams' weekly rankings for ESPN after yet another torrid portion of his 2017-18 efforts:
"This might have been the best week of Davis' career, which is a frightening prospect for the rest of the league, given that he's a 24-year-old two-time First Team All-NBA player. Davis sported a player efficiency rating (PER) of 38.5, the best he has ever had in a week in which he played three games.
"It was quite the statement, given that Davis ranks fourth all time in PER behind only Michael Jordan, LeBron James and George Mikan (minimum 150 games played). He led the league in scoring while averaging more points in the paint than he ever has in a week. Considering that the Pelicans went 3-0 with Davis in the lineup and lost at Memphis in the game he sat out, Davis is an easy choice for our player of the week."
Everything is clicking for Davis.
He's blocking shots with aplomb and shutting down the interior of the New Orleans Pelicans' defensive schemes. He's finding open teammates but refusing to turn the ball over. He's scoring from all over the court and slashing 56.6/36.1/81.9.
If you force him from his preferred style of action, rest assured he'll still find a way to torch you.
Western Conference Frontcourt Starter: DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.6 blocks
Let's play the narrowing-down game.
DeMarcus Cousins is currently one of 42 qualified players in NBA history to average at least 25 points per game with a true shooting percentage no worse than 58 percent. That much-ballyhooed combination of physicality and finesse is paying off yet again, as Cousins can score in just about every conceivable situation, whether he's running the floor in transition, lofting spot-up jumpers or bullying opponents in the post.
Among that club, only nine men have also grabbed at least a dozen rebounds during their average outing. And Cousins isn't just feasting on the defensive or offensive glass as a one-way specialist; he understands the nuances of boxing out and has the strength necessary to fight past players attempting to do the same on the other end.
But what makes Cousins truly unique is his ability to perform all the aforementioned tasks and still show off facilitating abilities more typically found in players about a foot shorter. Out of that group of nine, just he and Charles Barkley have put up the necessary numbers while averaging at least five dimes.
This is all before we factor in Cousins' disruptive defense. He may lose focus too frequently on that side of the floor, but he's capable of impacting the proceedings with his quick hands and feet whenever he puts forth the requisite effort.
Cousins remains a polarizing figure, but he's pretty darn good at this whole basketball thing.