Way-Too-Soon Predictions for 2018-19 NBA All-Star Rosters

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2018

Way-Too-Soon Predictions for 2018-19 NBA All-Star Rosters

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    The NBA cracked the All-Star Game last year, finally figuring out how to inject intensity and real stakes into a contest that had devolved into a half-speed, defense-free exhibition.

    Captains, hand-picked rosters and rewards for winning mean the All-Star Game is a bigger deal than it's been in years. As such, making the roster counts for a bit more.

    It's best to approach these predictions from two angles. First, you have established All-Stars projected to either sustain their recent levels of play or suffer a small enough measure of decline to be good bets to return to the showcase. Second, there are up-and-comers who haven't made the roster yet but who figure to get there this time.

    We're listing these rosters as East and West, but with last year's rule tweak mixing everyone up, these won't be what the actual teams look like. They're still useful as a way to project who'll be involved before the captains divvy up the talent.

    Finally, we're making these predictions based on the assumption that fan, player and media votes get most of the selections right. The selection process is still a somewhat gimmicky popularity contest driven by social media campaigns and ballot-stuffing measures that once nearly got Zaza Pachulia elected as a starter. We're hoping meritocracy wins out.

    The All-Star Game is alive again. Here's who'll be there.

Western Conference Backcourt Starters

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    Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

    Regression is coming for Curry, who'll turn 31 about a month after the 2019 All-Star Game. But if you were designing a player to resist the slow creep of time, you'd probably start by making him the best shooter to ever live. Because even if the athletic burst goes, the sweet stroke (and the fear it inspires) will still be there.

    Curry missed 31 games in 2017-18, so if he doesn't earn this spot, it's more likely to be health-related than a performance issue. His effective field-goal percentage of 61.8 was the second-best of his career, bettered only by the 63 percent he managed during 2015-16, when he was the unanimous MVP. No slippage yet.

    Plus, Curry was last year's leading vote-getter in the West, and his jersey was the league's best-seller yet again. As long as there's a fan vote, Curry is a safe bet to start.

                       

    James Harden, Houston Rockets

    At the risk of oversimplification, it seems easy to bet on the reigning MVP to start the All-Star Game.

    James Harden led the league in scoring last year and became the first player in history to average at least 10 free-throw and three-point attempts per game. With those two high-efficiency pillars supporting his bucket-getting game, Harden doesn't figure to fall off anytime soon.

    At 29, it's possible the Rockets' leader starts to show signs of slippage. But Harden would have to fall off substantially to create any doubt about his All-Star worthiness.

    Russell Westbrook is a consideration here, but Harden had a quarter-million more fan votes and crushed Westbrook 94-17 in media voting for last year's game. That's too much ground for Russ to make up.

Western Conference Frontcourt Starters

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    LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

    Now that he's in L.A., James is almost certainly going to eclipse the league-leading 2.6 million fan votes he earned last year as a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Barring injury (which we are), there's no way James winds up outside the starting unit. Even if his numbers take a dive, he's clearly coasting during the first four months of the season and the Lakers play .500 ball, James is a lock here.

    Fans, media and players are all conditioned to know that if James isn't performing at his peak, it's only because he's saving up for the games that matter. He's earned the benefit of the doubt.

    The only source of intrigue will be whether Curry or Harden get enough starting votes to threaten James' West captaincy. Don't bet on it.

    This will be James' 15th consecutive All-Star appearance.

                       

    Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

    Even if the Warriors spend the regular season on cruise control, Durant may still be in position to improve on the numbers that earned him his ninth straight All-Star trip last season.

    KD averaged 26.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 2017-18, which would normally be tough to top. But if Curry and Klay Thompson rest more often, and if Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston stay in sleep mode until April, somebody's going to pick up the slack. Why not the most gifted scorer in the game?

    If the offense is sleepwalking in December and January, it's easy to imagine the Warriors leaning on Durant as a fulcrum. He can get buckets when nothing runs smoothly.

    Of course, it's also possible Durant will rest as much or more than his other title-defending teammates. Even then, he'll put up 25 points per game on high efficiency. Throw in the high profile and visibility of the Warriors, and Durant has vote-garnering advantages he doesn't even need.

                

    Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

    Once Davis became New Orleans' lone big in a spaced-out, sped-up offense, he shredded the league.

    His three highest monthly scoring averages and usage rates came in February, March and April. If we assume those post-DeMarcus Cousins months represent the baseline we should expect in 2018-19, AD is in line to average 30.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocks on 51.8 percent shooting.

    Nobody averaged more than those 30.6 points after Feb. 1 last season, which means a scoring title (or at least a scoring lead by the All-Star break) is realistic in Davis' seventh season.

    If those aren't All-Star-starter numbers, I'm not sure what are. 

Western Conference Reserves

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    Backcourt Reserve: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Though his free-throw rate dipped to the second-lowest level of his career, and though he shot just 29.8 percent from three-point range, Russell Westbrook finished better at the rim and added more treys to his shot profile in 2017-18. The result was an effective field-goal percentage of 47.7, right in line with the 47.6 percent he produced during his MVP season.

    Westbrook may be the most athletic man to ever play the point, but his rocket-fueled burst and elastic bounce will diminish eventually. With his 30th birthday in November, the cliff's edge is approaching. But this is a bet Westbrook won't fall off this season.

                 

    Backcourt Reserve: Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

    The Rockets may not be quite as dominant as they were in winning 65 games a year ago, but they'll certainly be good enough to warrant two All-Stars. Injury is a bigger concern for the 33-year-old Paul than almost anyone else on this All-Star roster, but as long as he's moderately healthy, he'll produce stats worthy of a spot.

    Paul averaged 18.6 points per game and posted the second-highest effective field-goal percentage of his career last season. As was the case for Westbrook, slippage is coming for Paul. There just haven't been any signs of it yet.

           

    Frontcourt Reserve: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves

    The vibes are concerning in Minnesota, but KAT's lack of an extension offer and the uncertainty surrounding Jimmy Butler's future with the team will have a hard time keeping the most offensively skilled big man in the game from putting up more monstrous numbers.

    Towns has never missed a game while averaging 21.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and one made triple in his first three NBA seasons. In the entire history of the league, he's the only guy in that club.

    Entering his age-23 season, Towns may just be getting started.

               

    Frontcourt Reserve: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

    Green's 2017-18 counting stats (11.0 points, 7.6 rebounds, 7.3 assists) were right in line with what he produced the year before, but he failed to make his trademark defensive impact during the regular season, prompting concerns he might have lost a step. That was until he, like so many other Warriors, flipped the switch in the playoffs.

    Undersized and not in possession of eye-popping athleticism, Green's prime may not extend much longer. The problem is, we won't necessarily know if he's slipped until the postseason—when he'll either summon his switch-everything, be-everywhere, dominate-without-scoring form...or try to and fail for the first time.

    The Warriors are going to win a zillion games without a sweat, and Green, even at half-speed, will have lots to do with it.

    This will be his fourth consecutive honor.

           

    Frontcourt Reserve: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

    It's time. Blog-boy favorite Nikola Jokic has done enough to earn notice from a broader base of voting peers.

    Jokic added more long-range volume to his game last year, which caused his effective field-goal percentage to dip from 60.5 in 2016-17 to 55.4. That's still comfortably above the league average, and in light of the added volume and elite passing Jokic offered, it was more than good enough to solidify him as a genuine offensive cornerstone.

    No other center playing today comes close to Jokic as a facilitator, and his step forward as a shooter (39.6 percent on 3.7 deep tries per game) means he can't be ignored off the ball ever again.

    We could see Jokic average something like 20 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists while positioning the Nuggets for a playoff spot in his age-23 season.

           

    Wild Card: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

    Yep, a fourth Warrior.

    If that seems unlikely, it shouldn't. We've had a quartet in each of the last two seasons.

    Thompson matched or exceeded career highs in rebounds, assists, field-goal percentage and three-point percentage last season, all while continuing to play some of the best wing defense in the league. As the Warriors move to a smaller starting unit that features either Jordan Bell or Kevon Looney at the 5, we could see Thompson enjoy even more space and clean looks.

    Will he exceed last year's 44 percent conversion rate from distance? Maybe not. But the worst Thompson has ever shot from downtown is 40.1 percent. There's not a lot of downside risk here.

              

    Wild Card: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

    Mitchell is the first and only newbie on the West roster. He's here because he averaged 20.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists as a rookie while assuming lead-dog status for an excellent Jazz team. Guys who seize the reins like that—especially the ones who develop new moves and expand their games during the season—generally don't fall victim to the sophomore slump.

    If you're looking for a sleeper in the scoring title race, this is the guy. Mitchell figures to improve dramatically, adding wrinkles to his game just like he did a year ago. And the continued lack of a second go-to scoring option in Utah means everything will flow through him again.

    If you thought last year was Mitchell's breakout, just hang tight. He'll show everyone what a real leap looks like in 2018-19.

Eastern Conference Backcourt Starters

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    Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

    The three East guards who finished behind Irving in fan voting last year totaled about 5,500 more fan votes than the Celtics guard got on his own. Not only that, but Irving finished first among East backcourt players in both the media and player voting.

    Before undergoing knee surgery last year, Irving posted shooting splits of 48.9 percent from the field, 40.1 percent from deep and 88.9 percent from the foul line. It won't take much to get him up over the 50/40/90 threshold.

    In light of all that, it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Irving isn't a starter for the third year in a row.

                  

    Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

    Last year's Most Improved Player, Oladipo could replicate the production from his post-break swoon and still confidently expect a spot here. After playing in his first All-Star Game, Oladipo averaged 20.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.7 assists on 54.5 percent true shooting.

    That constituted a slump, which says everything you need to know about Oladipo.

    Now surrounded by more shooting and playmaking with Doug McDermott and Tyreke Evans aboard, Oladipo could see a spike in efficiency and even more defensive impact. He had to do just about everything for Indiana last year, and who knows how much better he could be with the luxury of a breather here and there?

    That's to say nothing of his capacity for skill development. Oladipo added a deadly off-the-bounce trey and got himself into fantastic shape last summer. If he's back at work right now, there's no telling how dangerous he'll be in 2018-19.

Eastern Conference Frontcourt Starters

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

    It'd be hard to go wrong betting on Antetokounmpo to win MVP this season, which means it's also reasonable to slot him in as an All-Star starter.

    Theoretically better positioned to succeed under new head coach Mike Budenholzer, Antetokounmpo should find the going easier in an offense that features more passing, better spacing and generally shrewder core concepts. That he was able to score 26.9 points per game in Milwaukee's cramped and clunky scheme last year suggests an average north of 30 is realistic.

    Because of his sheer physical prowess, it's difficult to imagine a ceiling for Antetokounmpo. Could he leverage his length and quickness into a DPOY award? Could he lead the league in blocks and steals? Could he figure out how to cover the distance between half court and the rim in one step instead of two?

    Much is uncertain (and exciting) about Antetokounmpo's upcoming season. The only sure thing is that it'll be special.

    Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

    Among players who posted up at least 200 times last year, Embiid tied for third in points per play. Only Towns and LaMarcus Aldridge scored more efficiently. This seems like a good time to mention Embiid managed that feat while posting the fifth-highest turnover rate in that same group of high-usage post-up threats.

    If Embiid stops coughing up the rock so often, he'll quickly become the best back-to-basket scorer in the league. Not bad for a guy who also finished second in DPOY voting.

    This might be the best way to think about Embiid: as a guy who is obviously dominant in spite of stark and correctible flaws. It's been said with annoying frequency, but Embiid picked the game up late and is relatively inexperienced. Once he cleans up some of his trouble spots, he'll be impossible to handle on either end.

    Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

    It's convenient that LeBron James' departure opens up a starting spot for Leonard, though we'll have to see whether the new Raptor is fully healthy and committed to competing with his new team.

    Assuming Leonard is physically sound and emotionally engaged for what feels like a stopover season, we should expect the two-time All-Star to add a third nod to his resume. Leonard barely played before the break last year and still finished sixth among West forwards in fan voting. Considering the weaker field in the East, he shouldn't have a problem overtaking the reserves we'll list momentarily.

    Maybe starting the All-Star Game is an overblown honor, but it might mean something to a guy who has a lot more to prove than your typical star. Leonard needs to show the league he's the same player who won a Finals MVP, finished third in MVP voting two years ago and established himself as the NBA's preeminent perimeter defender.

    A strong first half and a position alongside Embiid and Antetokounmpo will help confirm Leonard is all the way back.

Eastern Conference Reserves

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    Backcourt Reserve: John Wall, Washington Wizards

    Wall's 2017-18, in which he averaged 19.4 points and 9.6 assists, was his worst in a half-decade by most catch-all metrics. He also missed exactly half the season because of injury.

    That he's still a safe pick here says a lot about how valuable he can be, even if he's far from his best.  Perhaps it says just as much about the dearth of talent in the East.

    Even if he's regressed significantly on D (voters don't care about that stuff anyway), and even if a speed-dependent player might struggle to adjust as his wheels go, Wall remains a top-flight guard who can take games over with his passing and relentless transition attacks.

    Most of the snubs we're going to list for the East are in the frontcourt, so Wall's spot is locked in as long as he's healthy enough to play.

             

    Backcourt Reserve: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

    As Wall struggled with injury, Beal became Washington's best player last year. Scoring at higher volume (22.5 points to Wall's 19.4) and with far greater efficiency (52.7 effective field-goal percentage to Wall's 46.6), Beal may have quietly shifted the Wizards' hierarchy for good.

    If he hasn't, he'll still be an easy All-Star selection.

    A sweet stroke and expanding comfort as a playmaker give Beal a deep offensive repertoire. Next step: upping the effort on D, which would elevate Beal to the top tier of his position.

                      

    Frontcourt Reserve: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

    Maybe this is buying into the hype. Maybe Tatum won't make more than half of his corner threes next year. Maybe we're all reading too deeply into a playoff run that seemed to signal the arrival of an early-stage Kobe Bryant clone (footwork and fallaways mostly, not so much the sneering and selfish chucking).

    But do you really want to be on the wrong side of history if Tatum delivers on the promise he showed as a rookie?

    Antetokounmpo is the overlord of the East for the foreseeable future, and Leonard could rank right up there for as long as he sticks around. After that, there's room for another young wing to settle in as a true rising star. Tatum has the game to be that guy. 

            

    Frontcourt Reserve: Al Horford, Boston Celtics

    Here's hoping Al Horford sustains his star play long enough for everyone who's been a year or two behind on his excellence to catch up and appreciate it.

    It's always been easy to overlook the Celtics center. He's not flashy, and he doesn't produce gaudy numbers. Instead, he scores from all three levels, facilitates expertly, directs a top-flight defense and never succeeds individually to the detriment of his teammates.

    You see the 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds from last season, and you wonder whether Horford belongs here. What you should be wondering is why anyone believes there's a more complete big man in the East.

               

    Frontcourt Reserve: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

    How Ben Simmons is categorized for actual voting purposes is anyone's guess. He's his team's starting point guard, but he's 6'10" and can guard five positions. We'll call him a forward for purposes of fitting him in here, though if push came to shove and we had to call him a guard, he might deserve a spot over Beal, Wall and anyone else we've listed among the reserves.

    In fact, if Simmons shows any kind of growth with his jumper, he may earn himself a starting position.

    As a rookie, all he did was average 15.8 points, 8.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds, numbers we've seen equaled by a first-year player just once—when Oscar Robertson did it in 1960-61, two years before Simmons' dad was born.

             

    Wild Card: Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

    Walker has averaged at least 20 points and five assists over the last three seasons while hitting no worse than 37 percent of his threes. The only other players to do that are Curry, Durant and Irving.

    At 28, Walker is also playing out the last year of his current contract. With just one more chance to cash in on a long-term deal, he should be extra motivated to produce this season.

           

    Wild Card: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

    Lowry, 32, is on the decline. But before writing him off as an All-Star, note that he's now playing for the most talented version of the Raptors we've ever seen. There has to be some benefit in extra help, even if it's only an extra couple of minutes to rest every night.

    Another thing to consider: Lowry's box plus-minus of plus-5.9 ranked eighth in the league last year. So if he's starting to slip, he has a long way to fall before he tumbles out of the conversation on the NBA's best players.

    This exercise is about predictions, which means the best players aren't always the ones forecasted to make it. If we were just laying out the most positively impactful forces in the league, Lowry would never have to settle for a just-made-it wild-card spot.

Snubs

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    Western Conference

    Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

    Our predictions have Mitchell effectively taking Lillard's spot, but the Blazers icon would have warranted starting consideration in the East. If he posts another season of 26.9 points, 6.6 assists and 4.5 rebounds, he could end up making it over Mitchell. If that's how it shakes out, nobody outside of Salt Lake City will have cause to be upset.

    The West is just ridiculous.

               

    Jimmy Butler, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Butler has averaged 15 missed games over the last five seasons, which makes him a better bet than most to lose out on a berth because of health. Minnesota is also no lock to improve, and at 29, Butler could begin to regress. There are just too many foreseeable obstacles to put him on the team. Like Lillard, he'd make the East roster without issue.

           

    Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Let's make it three straight West snubs who'd deserve a spot in the other conference!

    George has been an All-Star in five of the last six seasons, shot 40.1 percent from deep last year and remains a top-tier perimeter stopper. Give him Klay Thompson's spot, and nobody's going to argue.

                    

    Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

    It's hard to think of a better, more impactful player that fewer observers appreciate. Sure, Gobert was recognized as the Defensive Player of the Year, but he has yet to make an All-Star team.

    Despite being the reason Utah owns the league's best defense, and despite a high-efficiency, no-fuss role in the offense, Gobert is still a conventional, defense-first center who doesn't connect with fans the same way guards do. It's unfair, but if it comes down to Gobert versus Jokic or Towns, it's much easier to grasp what makes them productive.

           

    Eastern Conference

    Gordon Hayward/Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

    There may not be enough numbers to go around between Horford, Irving, Tatum, Hayward and Brown. If the Celtics rocket out of the gates and run up a gaudy record, we could see one of these guys join the three Boston players already named to the roster.

    But we've only seen four players from the same team make the All-Star Game nine times, and we've never had two sets of four involved in the same year. With the Warriors' quartet already penciled in, another foursome seems unlikely.

               

    Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic

    The Magic don't have anywhere to go but up, and Gordon could continue adding range and perimeter skills to his game (though he should still only play the 4). If everything breaks right, we could see Gordon average 20 and 10 with respectable accuracy on a moderate volume of three-point shots. If that happens, he'll push for a wild-card berth.

    Consider this a bet that his growth happens more gradually over the next few seasons.

           

    Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Somebody has to get numbers in Cleveland, and it'll almost certainly be the guy who ranked third in the league in box plus-minus the last time he was the top option on his team. Sure, that was 2013-14, and Love is a half-decade removed from that performance. But we know he can do more when given the opportunity.

    Expect big numbers and more than a little positive sentiment for a player who was too often blamed for whatever went wrong with the Cavs over the last few seasons.

    Also, expect the Cavs to lose too often for Love to get enough recognition. Hence the snub.

           

    Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

    Turner didn't make a leap last year, but it's not too late. If the sweet-shooting big man gets comfortable spacing out to the arc on his pick-and-pops, Turner could unlock new and devastating options in Indiana's attack.

    Last year, despite the Pacers needing scorers to support Oladipo, Turner only got up 2.4 treys per game. That number needs to double—at least. If that happens, and if Turner toughens up inside, he'll push for a spot. Like Gordon, though, it's wiser to anticipate a slight uptick rather than a breakout.

                      

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.